100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 34, Chiles de Padron Asados at Caracol
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.
Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg So simple, yet so divine.
Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega's new seafood-centered Mexican restaurant has a menu full of stunners. The ensalada de pulpo (octopus salad) is a refreshing mixture of grilled octopus and roasted potatoes and carrots dotted with bright green celery leaves and a slightly spicy pumpkinseed sauce. The tostones de atun feature crisp plantain tostadas topped with tuna ceviche and a bright but creamy cilantro dressing. The pozole verde with hominy and littleneck clams is green with cilantro and oregano, and as soothing as it is exotic. You cannot order wrong at Caracol.
In spite of the bounty of beautiful fresh seafood though, a different dish had me oohing and ahhing on my most recent dinner at Caracol: The chiles de padron asados.
It's probably the simplest dish on the entire menu. Padron chiles are originally from South America, but they were brought to Spain from the New World in the 18th century, where the city of Padron became famous for cultivating them. Padrons are in the same family as habañeros and ghost chile peppers, but they're much milder. The flavor is somewhere between a green bell pepper and a jalapeño, but they're generally more mild than spicy.
So much more than bar food.
At Caracol, the padron chiles are treated with the utmost respect. They're sautéed over high heat in a pan with hot oil until they blister and brown. Then, they're finished simply with lime juice and sea salt and served, stems on, in a dark ceramic bowl.
That's it. I'm honestly unsure what else to say about this dish, except that the combination of roasted pepper, citrus and salt dances across the tongue, almost playing tricks on it in a way that it's unsure of what it's just consumed until after it's already been swallowed. One moment it's warm and comforting, like a slightly slimy bell pepper. The next it's sharp and biting, causing the mouth to pucker with the influx of citric acid on the taste buds. Finally, the salt crystals both heighten and, eventually, mellow out the other flavors, leaving you with the essence of burnt bell pepper and then a little something extra.
It's so obviously good, and yet so surprising on a menu of far more complicated and intentionally amazing dishes. And yet, it's my preference. I could eat it every day and be very satisfied with the abundance of warm green peppers in my life.
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