For those who speak Spanish, the word caracol is instantly evocative of seafood. It translates to conch, or shell, and in addition to rolling off the tongue, the word has special meaning for Hugo Ortega and his wife, Tracy Vaught, of Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe.
"Hugo's brother used to be the chef at Victoria House Hotel in Belize," Vaught explains. "We went down several times to visit, and Hugo really wanted to learn how to make the ceviche de caracol. Down there they have a lot of conch. We watched a wedding on the beach and they lined the aisle with conch, that's how much they have. It's sort of a nice memory for Hugo, making that dish with his brother."
Now, the two-time James Beard Award-nominated Ortega has opened Caracol to showcase his skill with seafood and bring a different type of Mexican cuisine to Houston. The new space officially opened on Monday, December 16, and has already been drawing crowds eager to try Ortega's takes on seafood from all three of Mexico's coasts.
"We've done a lot of travel over the years, and we end up eating a lot of seafood in Mexico," Vaught says. "We've been to many, many coastal towns, both touristy and off the beaten path. We love researching that and learning about the dishes that are traditional in each region."
Ortega and Vaught brought in chef Daniel Bridges, most recently of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, to assist with the opening, but now that Caracol is up and running, the kitchen is back in the hands of Ortega and his brother, Ruben Ortega, a pastry chef.
"Back in the day, we were wanting to hire someone who could complement Hugo to bring up the kitchen to a higher level of organization with better house control," Vaught says. "We got pretty far into it, and Daniel said what we really need is a kitchen manager. We already had Hugo to do the creative food part of it. I think Daniel would really like to do something bigger. We're trying to help him get aligned with a larger group so he can stay in Houston."
Now that the restaurant is open and a chef change has taken place, we can all sit back and focus on the most important aspect of Caracol -- the food.
Dinner starters are broken up into crudos (raw ceviches and oysters), coctales y escabeches (cooked appetizer items) and sopas y ensaladas (soups and salads, including green turtle soup, a dish no longer common in the U.S.). The main-course options feature seafood and meat cooked in Caracol's wood-burning oven or over a grill, and upscale versions of classic Mexican street food.
On a recent trip to Caracol, I caught Ortega and Vaught taking a well-deserved break, and they ordered the ostiones asados, wood-roasted Gulf oysters with chipotle butter. Other diners were enjoying ensalada de pulpo, a salad of grilled Spanish octopus in red wine sauce, greens and roasted potatoes with a pumpkin-seed dressing and the grilled catch of the day with a tomatillo-caper sauce and crispy shallots.
For those less inclined to dine on sea creatures, Caracol offers a number of more familiar, meatier options.
"We wanted to make sure there were things that are familiar and that would be good for first-time visitors," Vaughts says. "Sometimes these menus in another language can be hard to understand, so we have a Texas T Kobe strip steak and carnitas tacos."
Vaught is particularly enthused about the variation on pickled pigs feet, which was her grandfather's favorite dish. At Caracol, the old-fashioned dish will be given new life with cauliflower, chambray onions and beech mushrooms in escabeche.
She's also excited about the bar menu, developed by Sean Beck. He's doing fun things with margaritas, like the Caracol Rita with tequila, orange liqueur, Campari, lime, peach nectar, simple syrup and tea-infused salt, and the Zihuatanejo, which is made with mezcal, Crème de Violet liqueur, lime and salted margarita foam.
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"We're also specializing in Champagne, which I think is going to complement the seafood and be a great value," Vaught says. "I've seen some sommeliers come in and say, 'How are you selling that for that?'"
Though Caracol is now running smoothly, Vaught admits that operating three restaurants is going to be a challenge.
"It's always something," Vaught admits. "Maintenance is a big thing for us, because Hugo's and Backstreet are in old buildings. Of course, there are times when everything's going smoothly, but there's always something!"
For now, that something seems to be big, hungry crowds and beautiful, fresh seafood.