Not too long ago, a sleek restaurant specializing in sophisticated Mexican seafood would have been hard to find in Houston. Enter Hugo Ortega.
I am sitting at Caracol—distracted by the lively buzz of conversation and the blur of servers hustling past—pondering a weighty question: Could this Houston dining establishment have existed before now? Twenty-five years ago, a seafood restaurant with dishes from the interior of Mexico would have catered to homesick exiles and a few fanatical purists in a strip center in southwest Houston. Fifteen years ago, it would have been serving up predictable fare like Baja fish tacos and snapper al mojo de ajo in a big margarita-and-beer-soaked building on Kirby. But only in the past few years, I have to conclude, could Caracol exist in its present form: a white-hot restaurant offering a menu of sophisticated Mexican coastal dishes in a sleek Galleria-area bank tower. And it is no coincidence that its co-owner and creative guru, Hugo Ortega, has had a great deal to do with the changing face of Mexican food in Texas’s largest city. His story is an engrossing one. A broke and jobless seventeen-year-old, he arrived here from Mexico City in 1984. Working his way up the ladder of success, he trained to be a professional chef; fell in love with and married his boss, restaurateur Tracy Vaught; and with her eventually opened the interior-Mexican restaurant he had dreamed of, in 2002. A dozen years later, the loyal clientele that the couple fed and, more to the point, helped educate at Hugo’s is flocking to see what they’re up to at their new digs.
The space in which I’m ensconced isn’t exactly sprawling, but it’s plenty big enough to accommodate a lofty dining room that seats two hundred. To the left when you walk in is a longish bar, where you can relax and knock back a drink or two (the barkeeps do terrific variations on the Paloma; get the Mercado, made with your choice of tequila, mezcal, or sotol). Should you arrive after the lunch rush is over, as a friend and I did on my first visit, you might be taken in hand by a kindly waiter and offered a tour. With great courtesy he squired us around for a look at the wood-burning oven and then walked us over to inspect the charming paintings of shore birds and ocean life that hang on the tall white walls. As he steered us to a table, I asked, “How’s business?” He answered, “Last Friday we had more than four hundred customers.” I said, “And remind me how long you’ve been open?” He said, “Three and a half weeks.”
We took a minute to look over the menu, which like so many these days de-emphasizes entrées—I counted 29 small plates and 10 sides but only 12 main courses. Thinking we weren’t that hungry, we ordered sparingly, starting with a mere half dozen wood-roasted Gulf oysters, buttery mollusks under a mantel of chipotle-gilded bread crumbs. After that auspicious beginning, we checked out the crudos. A platter of thinly sliced raw fish with the lovely name of Pétalos de Huachinango (“petals of red snapper”) came adorned with dainty slips of cucumber and tangerine sections. We followed up with tostones, plantain crisps folded like taco shells, stuffed with onion-spiked tuna ceviche, and sided by a lush cilantro cream. Far from getting full, we were now hungrier than ever, so we turned to the Platos Fuertes and zeroed in on the Spanish-octopus salad. Splashed with a guajillo chile–pumpkin seed dressing, it was bracing and yet subtly sweet, an altogether fantastic combination.
If Caracol (“conch” or “sea snail”) is open and sunny during the day, after the sun goes down the restaurant will remind you of being happily holed up at a Caribbean resort, watching the palm trees sway and whip in a stiff wind off the water. My three friends and I vowed to make a serious dent in the menu. Buoyed by my lunchtime success, I ordered two raw selections. The conch crudo with a sprightly dice of pineapple and papaya, pleasant though it was, didn’t hold a candle to the carpaccio, which had been deftly sliced from wagyu tri-tip steak and augmented with crisp jícama and luscious dollops of avocado-tomatillo salsa. Entrées were hard-pressed to keep up the pace. The grilled striped bass in tomatillo-caper sauce struck me as a more imaginative version of that timeless favorite snapper veracruzana. A duck-centric plate with the fowl three ways had an absolutely splendid breast in a russet-hued pumpkin seed sauce, a meaty duck leg confit with well-crisped skin, and hopeless duck-filled molotes (these torpedo-shaped masa fritters are a popular street food in Mexico, but the sad truth is that all too often they turn into concrete the minute they cool, and the ones here were no exception).
The most dramatic-looking entrée of the evening was undoubtedly the fire-roasted lobster, a tender, nice-sized tail that was paraded out on a glossy black platter surrounded by rice, a little pot of heavenly mashed pintos, and aioli for dipping. As an accompaniment, I insisted we get the zacahuil, because I couldn’t recall having ever seen one on a Texas menu. In its classic, and ancient, form, this mother of all tamales is Ripley’s-worthy—one zacahuil can be four or five feet long. At Caracol the recipe has been converted into individual banana leaf–wrapped packets of “seafood tamal casserole.” I was won over at the first taste of the near-fluffy, rustic masa moistened with a rich red mole and—stay with me here—shredded catfish. Just trust me, it’s really good.
Desserts comprise a well-edited list from Hugo’s brother, Ruben, who is the pastry chef at both Caracol and Hugo’s. Roasted pineapple with pistachio cake was satisfyingly straightforward, while strawberry-rhubarb empanadas took on a mysterious dimension with an accent of rose-petal ice cream. But by far the best way to end a meal at this tropical sanctuary is with a square of smooth cinnamon-coffee-orange flan surrounded by wafers of candied kumquat. With beautifully dovetailed flavors, it was a study in bitter and sweet that brought each component into sharp focus. As I scraped the last bite from the plate, it struck me that, in a way, it was like the restaurant itself: an updated and enhanced take on Mexican tradition, designed for an American audience that grows smarter and more appreciative with each passing year. Hugo, Tracy, and Ruben have themselves to thank for that.
Caracol, 2200 Post Oak Blvd, Houston (713-622-9996). B Sun. L & D 7 days. $$$. Opened December 14, 2013.