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Fish Story

by John DeMers | Photography by Shannon O’Hara & Debora Smail | Houston magazine | April 2, 2014

Houston chef Hugo Ortega grew up in the interior of Mexico—in Mexico City and Puebla—longing for the sights, sounds and scents of the sea. With the opening of Caracol and its remarkable embrace of what it defines as the “Mexican Coastal Kitchen,” Ortega doesn’t have to wish anymore. Nor does anyone else who loves the often-simple, flavorful and freshness-first cooking of a world far removed from our own familiar, landlocked Tex-Mex.

In addition to his namesake restaurant Hugo’s—the first serious and seriously good restaurant to win over local diners with food from the interior, where his efforts have won him James Beard nominations three years in a row—Ortega and his restaurateur wife Tracy Vaught oversee Backstreet Café and Prego, both touting hyper-fresh Gulf Coast seafood. So it was, arguably, only a matter of time before the wildly varied but less-familiar seafood cookery of Mexico’s coastlines found its way into Ortega’s repertoire. “Tracy and I have been working on this for the last 20 years,” Ortega says. “Every time we’d go to Mexico, we’d write down all these recipes. I knew I wanted to have a seafood restaurant at some point in my life.”

In a Gulf Coast city with lots of seafood restaurants already—from Cajun/Creole to Southeast Asian—it’s impressive how different the same basic lineup of shrimp, crabmeat, oysters, lobster and fish can taste. Caracol takes us to a new place on the map, one that evokes a beach vacation, representing all 16 Mexican states that front the Gulf, the Caribbean or the Pacific.

The look of Caracol is striking, reminiscent of both Mexican resorts and tiny fishing villages. The bar to the left as you enter—called Gusano, after the worm in a bottle of mescal—is set off by hanging sailboat booms and by sails that seem to catch a breeze. The unifying palette here is sand, straw and blue, creating a kind of interior beach for the servers and bartenders in embroidered Oaxacan shirts, the busboys and runners wearing guayaberas and red sashes, and the oyster-bar chefs in straw hats and pañuelo neckerchiefs.

Caracol’s oyster bar has become a gathering place. If you happen to be eating alone, there are seats to watch the show: chefs shucking oysters and organizing them on silver platters of rock salt, topping them with a compound butter spiked with chipotle, then setting them deep inside a domed wood-burning oven. Any pizza would be proud to emerge from such an oven, but in this case Ortega’s rich, spice-layered ostiones asados have the honor. The same ultra-hot oven produces langosta Puerto Nuevo, a kind of crispy-outside, tender-inside Mexican lobster thermidor served with tortillas, rice and beans.

Among the menu’s vast options for beginning your meal are crudos, including the signature one combining paper-thin slices of conch with pineapple, ginger and red jalapeño—and the one with crisp plantain tostones topped with tuna ceviche, grilled lime and cilantro cream. Also, the Mexico City-style campechana with shrimp, crab, octopus, chile and cilantro is life-changing. One sentimental favorite soup for Ortega is the sopa de tortuga, a pureed and herbal turtle soup made with farm-raised meat. This is a world away from the tomato-based, sherry-splashed version you find in classic New Orleans eateries.

As a main course, a fish of the day turns up whole from the grill with a tomatillo-caper sauce, while the fillet of snapper is baptized by that wood oven. (Such aromas and flavors evoke one of those unforgettable nights when you cook what you caught over an open fire on the beach.) Non-seafood entrees include an unexpected crispy duck with chard and a sauce of red pumpkin seeds; and a bone-in short rib with roasted tomato salsa and cocoa nibs. Sides include roasted and pureed eggplant; lightly battered and pan-fried cauliflower served with roasted tomato sauce; and tamal Azteca, a layered tortilla casserole a la Tex-Mex cornbread dressing.

Hugo Ortega spent years of his life in the Mexican interior wishing the dazzling blue ocean and its bounty were close-by. Houston foodies may now rejoice that he’s made his way to the sea.

Why Go
Right next door to John Sheely’s Osteria Mazzantini in the stylish new BBVA Compass Building, Hugo Ortega’s latest expands his own brand of elevated, authentic Mexican cooking to the coast.

Think Drink
Exquisite spins on margaritas, palomas and other Latin favorites have been created by company drink-meister Sean Beck, but his true joy is wine. The Caracol list leans to white, light and refreshing, perfect for the seafood menu, yet Beck is happy to pair reds with the intense flavors as well.

Sunday Celebration
Brunch is popular at sister restaurants Hugo’s and Backstreet Café, so Caracol follows suit. Favorite dishes from the dinner menu seem different when accompanied by a pitcher of Veracruz Express mimosas, the orange juice replaced with a mix of pineapple, tangerine and lime.

Hammer Time
Of all the desserts crafted by Ortega’s pastry-chef brother Ruben, perhaps the most memorable is El Coco, a kind of chocolate globe you break open on the plate with a wooden mallet, revealing coconut buttercream and coconut ganache in a setting of coconut streusel and whipped coconut.

CARACOL
2200 Post Oak Blvd., Suite 160
713.622.9996

Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11am-10pm; Fri. and Sat. 11am-11pm; Sun. 11am-2:30pm (brunch) and 4-10pm

Prices: Starters, crudos, soups and salads $9-$15; main dishes $14-$45; sides $7; desserts $9-$11