Restaurant Reviews

Caracol, Hugo Ortega's Latest Outpost, is Reeling Them In

There's a divide as soon as you enter through the heavy glass doors and head toward the imposing limestone hostess stand. To the right, the dining area is filled with four-tops and families silently slicing into ruddy, mole-covered strip steaks and colorful salads featuring eggplant-hued octopus tentacles coiled around indigo potatoes. There's a quiet private-dining space that's nearly always packed with folks laughing over plates of ceviche as platter after platter of glistening whole-roasted catch of the day is whisked to tables of well-groomed men in blazers and women in sensible shoes.

To the left, a lively bar scene with an interesting mix of tanned socialites and foreign businessmen drinking their fair share of chardonnay and sucking down raw oysters dipped in mignonette.

Then the bowls of wood-fired oysters arrive, their gray shells practically overflowing with bread crumbs drenched in chipotle butter, followed by bowl after bowl of bright-green guacamole and freshly fried corn chips, and the couples, strangers until moments ago, inch closer to one another in an effort to reach the food, seemingly hoping the communal dining experience will lead to something more. And every now and then, above the din will come the loud crack of someone biting into an impossibly crisp chicharrón.

It's an interesting dynamic, subdued families on one side and the clublike bar scene on the other. And in the middle, the grandiose wood-burning oven, around which oysters and conch shells sit on ice, waiting to be cracked open and served to the massive crowds gathered at this bastion of Mexican seafood.

It's Caracol, the newest restaurant from the husband-and-wife duo Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught, who have built a mini Houston restaurant empire that's interwoven with their unique and very sweet love story. First came Backstreet Cafe, Vaught's initial foray into the industry, in 1983. Four years later, Ortega was hired as a dishwasher. Next, Vaught took over Italian restaurant Prego, and Ortega continued to climb the ranks in the kitchen. The two married in 1994, welcomed a daughter in 1997 and together opened Hugo's, a Mexican restaurant featuring recipes from Ortega's heritage, in 2002.

Caracol is the result of the couple's extraordinary efforts in the Houston restaurant industry and Ortega's intense passion for Mexican coastal cuisine. In the three months since it opened, the restaurant has amassed quite a following, every evening welcoming a diverse crowd of food-lovers, many of whom are avid followers of Ortega's cooking. If you're expecting the same solid favorites you find at Hugo's, however, you may be disappointed. The menu is about as undulating as Caracol's signature spiral motif, which is designed to represent the restaurant's namesake.

Get a behind the scenes look at the subject of this week's Cafe review in our slideshow, "Caracol: A Closer Look."

The Spanish word caracol translates to "snail" or "conch shell," but there is only one dish that incorporates conch on the menu at Caracol. The rest of the extensive lineup consists of a cross-section of Mexican seafood from every coast, as well as a few dishes that might seem familiar to Hugo's regulars. They might seem familiar, that is, if you can find them.

Though the menu is contained on one oversize page, it feels staggeringly inclusive — too inclusive, perhaps, judging from the sometimes inconsistent quality of the dishes. Instead of featuring a dozen or so steadfastly excellent items, the menu is brimming with what feels like too much of a good thing.

The ceviche de caracol, made with the restaurant's namesake conch, pineapple, red jalapeño, red onion, cilantro and ginger, is well worth the $14 price tag (where else can you eat fresh raw conch in Houston?), as is the ceviche de callo de hacha (scallop ceviche), but other "crudo items" on the menu fail to impress. The aguachile offers up shrimp with an odd, almost mushy texture, possibly from an excess amount of time curing in lime juice and chile, but the result is neither delicious nor intriguing. It's bland and sort of, just, there. The "Texas T Kobe" carne apache is similarly disappointing, flavor-wise. For $15, it's a very small portion of kobe tri-tip sliced so impossibly thin that the only elements your tongue registers are the corn and avocado-tomatillo sauce. The sauce is beautifully complex, but when you're paying for kobe beef, a lack of beef-ness is unfortunate.

The "coctales y escabeches" menu contains a few more interesting dishes than the "crudo" section, including a Spanish octopus cocktail with meat so sweet and tender you're apt to forget you're chewing on tentacles at all, as well as the more unusual pig feet, which were sadly missing from the menu on my most recent visit. But then there's the lengua, cured in a citrus and vinegar marinade and served with practically raw cauliflower, carrots and prickly pear slices. The tongue is chewy and its flavor oddly off-putting, like something not very fresh. The crunchy vegetables served alongside it are only mildly marinated as well, making for a dish that seems somehow incomplete.

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Kaitlin Steinberg