"I never thought I liked mole.”
That’s what my wife keeps telling people after eating at Xochi. It was the mole amarillo that shifted things for her. It came in a small white bowl, nestled next to three of its brethren, in a mole tasting ordered at dinner late one Sunday evening, and it was stunning. Nuanced and deeply flavored, somehow subtle despite its twangy, olive-briny backbone and pops of fruitiness, the mole amarillo sang with a basket of simple, fresh corn tortillas, the only company provided alongside the moles, and the only one wanted.
That night we gave our mole selections over to the kitchen. Along with the amarillo, it sent out mole negro (dusky and deep, with bitter chocolate laying down bass notes), mole verde (fresh and almost dainty, a reserved and floral thing that merged seamlessly with fresh, fragrant masa) and mole almendrado (dusky cumin, char and a haunting note of mint rounding out mellow, raisin-laced sweetness).
The moles take up a lot of menu real estate. In addition to the tasting option, there’s an entire section dedicated to pairing them with proteins. You’ll also find them scattered across the rest of the menu.
A pristine white disk of handmade cheese from the antojitos section came topped with huaxmole rojo, rust-red and broadcasting intensity. Nonpareil-shaped kisses of gentle sweet potato and suave guacamole also topped the cheese — along with a selection of crispy insects. Electric-fresh salsa verde and a pile of still-warm chicharrones complete the plate.
Gusanos — maguey worms — brought an intriguing waft of smoke, a bit like rubber or plastic, but in a good way. Flying ants, their black and bulbous bodies crunching impressively, mostly offered texture but also an underlying earthiness (“Petrichor” said my wife. “The way it smells after a rain”). Chapulines — grasshoppers — with a dry and woody crunch. They’re all noticeable, but only really if you want them to be. While they may be an immediate conversation piece, they fade into the background of the dish when eaten in complement. Break off a crumbling boulder of cheese, pile it in one of the chicharrones and swipe on a bit of your condiment of choice. Fresh, clean, punchy, salty, tart, smoky, crunchy, crisp, creamy.
Ants show up again in the mole de chicatana. You can have this mole solo in the tasting, draped across pork rib meat, or napping a grilled rib eye, as we did. Again, there’s a synergy at play here, the char on the beef (I’d like more of that, please) picking up the slightly funky earthiness of the mole, the sweet undertones of the sauce highlighting mineral notes in the meat.
Beef lovers might also enjoy the barbacoa de res de Zaachila, a rolled skirt steak bathed in a chile broth that arced between smoky and fruity, with an almost fermented funk playing subtly underneath; anise notes from hoja santa; intensely green pinpricks, like a combination of raw peanuts and young garlic, that our waitress told us came from guaje seeds.
Of course, many of the menu’s best and highest delights come from its flanks rather than its mains. Camarones en mole verde came head-on, forcing you to use your fingers (a good number of dishes here do, and I am all for it). Get involved. Once you’ve separated head from body, suck the head. It’s a rush of fat and flavor, like mainlining crustacean. The shrimp came perfectly cooked, still a bit dewy but boasting an intense roasted nuttiness to complement their gently oceanic sweetness. Mole verde provided the perfect accompaniment, delicate and sweetly herbal. Lots of polished, gentle flavors and textures played out between the seafood and its cool, calm, collected sauce. Crisp beans, incredibly tiny baby squash — their flowers still attached — and a baby turnip brought crunch and a vegetal echo to the main flavors of the mole.
From the crudos portion of the menu, robalo pairs cubes of creamy, silky sea bass with a surprisingly delicate combination of herbs, chile and citrus. It’s lovely to look at, as is the case with many of chef Hugo Ortega’s wildly colorful plates. A pinwheel of cucumber encases the aguachile, topped by a plantain tostada itself capped with dollops of avocado mousse and splints of watermelon radish.
For more finger food, try a pair of cabrito tacos. As with many of the long-cooked meat dishes, the goat here is roasted to tenderness, teased off the bone and into user-friendly form, then stacked on a pair of squid-ink-black tortillas. Packed into loose rectangles and seared for a delicate crisp, the meat was ever so slightly underseasoned on its own. That seems purposeful, though, when taken in reference to more of that electric salsa verde, which wakes everything up just so, and gently sweet dabs of sweet potato tinged with notes of anise. Each taco was only a few bites, but those few bites packed a punch.
As is the case with all of Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught’s restaurants, the drinks at Xochi are excellent. Beverage director Sean Beck outfits his wine lists with plenty of user-friendly, by-the-glass options that offer a hopscotch of well-tuned accompaniments. The wine list has a strong focus on the wines of Mexico, arranged in red, white and rosé. Try a glass of “O Positivo” from Solar Fortun if you’re opting for one of the heavier meat dishes. This blend of Cabernet and Syrah from the Guadalupe Valley focuses on rich, gamy dried fruit and tobacco, with hints of dried chiles and a gentle tug of funk. It drinks clean, finishing dry and savory, managing to be eminently approachable and head-turning at once.
The same is true of the finely balanced cocktails, focusing heavily but not single-mindedly on agave spirits. If you’re looking for mezcal, try the Wild Husk Sour. Blending mezcal with Pisco, St. Germaine (an elderflower liqueur), lime, grapefruit and tomatillo marmalade, it’s a complex and deeply inviting drink. The mezcal lends a subtle smoke, the St. Germaine a gentle floral perfume. Layers of citrus provide variegated acidity with a subtle bitterness, and sweet-tart and grassy tomatillo jam adds intrigue.
If you think mezcal is better served on its own, you’ve got that option too. The list offers a dozen or so interesting selections, including a handful of aged options. Some say that mezcal finds its best and highest form only when it hasn’t seen the inside of a barrel, arguing that barrel-aging is not a component of traditional mezcal production. I’ve long followed this guidance, but an after-dinner glass of Delirio de Oaxaca Reposado found me rethinking that position.
The gentleman who brought it out described it as being more akin to whiskey than to mezcal. I’m happy to report that this guidance was misguided. The result was far from heavy-handed, seeming gentle and almost graceful. Aromas of smoldering honey and cooked agave merge in the glass with citrus notes, pineapple and hints of grass and green vegetables. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was unexpectedly delicious.
If mezcal isn’t your thing, perhaps try the All Good Things, a sort of south-of-the-border riff on the Negroni Sbagliato. This blend of sparkling wine, chile-infused Campari, orange and “coffee mist” boasts a lovely edge of bitterness up front, the clean acidity of the sparkling wine shining through it. Heat blooms, along with earth and fruit. The spice thrums, but it doesn’t burn. Sweetness tickles your brain before the drink closes bone dry.
As with the wine and cocktail options, Ortega-Vaught restaurants have always focused on strong, inventive desserts, under the guidance of Ruben Ortega. Here, much of that focus is on chocolate, in ways both simply satisfying, and given to flights of whimsical fancy. For the former, opt for a pitcher of hot chocolate, foamed tableside. The subtly sweet, bitter, spiced chocolate froths up dramatically, landing in front of you in lovely, dimpled and rippling sipping cups from local maker Three Dot Pots. A couple of fragrant, crispy-chewy churros come along for the ride, ready for dunking and fighting over.
If you want a show-stopper, go for “Cacao.” Your dining companions might not believe you when you tell them that the picture-perfect cacao pod that lands in front of them is fully edible. Mine didn’t, until one brave soul got up the nerve to call my bluff. Doubt turned to delight as she popped an airbrushed piece of molded white chocolate into her mouth. Inside that pod, a dream boat for chocolate lovers spins through a wild panoply of flavors and textures. Some midnight dark, bitter and beguiling. Some milk-sweet and light as a cloud. Some spiced with cinnamon and other things, dusky and mysterious. Crumbly “soil.” White puffs of tejate foam break up the chocolate landscape, tasting like a nutty and slightly wild vanilla.
The helado de maíz is a good non-chocolate bet. While the name calls out corn, the real trick is the queso fresco ice cream that just might stop you cold. Even when you know it’s coming, it comes as a surprise. It’s punchy, salty and utterly arresting. Very much in the modern dessert vein, there’s also a crumbly thing (corn cookies, sweetly nutty and finely textured) and a saucy thing (blue corn atole cream, sticky and subtly spiced, reinforcing the other corn elements on the plate). Cross-hatched ears of baby corn defy expectations, being not corn at all but a smooth, tender yet resilient gel made from prickly pear cactus seeds and flavored with vanilla.
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Houston has a lot of good restaurants, and more great ones than many cities can boast. Even with all of that, it’s still rare to be excited by one. What’s rarer still is the restaurant that snaps into focus so clearly, that snaps you to attention as forcefully as does Xochi. The food is delicious and interesting. The wines are well-selected, the cocktails creative and well-crafted. The room — with its mix of gentle earth tones and textures and occasional bits of whimsy, like a wall adorned with colorful clay animal heads — charms. It’s more than that, though. The food, the experience, feels alive.
There is a sense of sharing, of discovery, of enthusiasm that permeates the place. Waiters, solicited even slightly, don’t offer suggestions, they gush them. Every head in the place seems on a swivel, looking longingly at the other tables, which are decked out with all the things they wish they’d ordered, leaving even me doubting my own choices: a high, crowned puff of blue corn masa, mounted by a shreddy tumble of rabbit swathed in red sauce; curls of octopus from the wood oven, topped with purslane and rainbow dabs of sauces and purées: green salsa, sweet potato, etc; regal pork shank bones jutting into the sky; a stone soup bowl, nested on a woven ring. I know it contains a seafood soup, and I want it. I want all of it. I’ve only just returned from Xochi, and already I’m longing to go back.
1777 Walker, Suite A, 713-400-3330, xochihouston.com. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Mole tasting $15
Tacos de cabrito $14
Barbacoa de res de Zaachila $28
Queso del rancho $13
Bistec con mole chicatana $37
Pitcher of hot chocolate (serves two) $12
Helado de maíz $10
Wild Husk Sour $11
All Good Things $9
Solar Fortun “O Positivo” (glass) $14
Delirio de Oaxaca Añejo mezcal (1.5 oz) $15