Caracol: Go for the Oysters, Stay for Delicious Drinks and Desserts
For last week's cafe review I visited Caracol, the new Mexican seafood restaurant from Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught, and noted that while there are some truly stellar plates on the menu, the sheer number of items being prepared in the kitchen is perhaps resulting in some dishes being less than they could be, quality-wise. Some things seemed to get lost in translation between the menu, the kitchen and my table, with several items not living up to what I've come to expect from Ortega and Vaught, who also own Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe.
Photo courtesy Caracol Save room for dessert at this coastal seafood restaurant.
Still, much of the food is very good, and the desserts and drinks are stellar. I don't always mention desserts and alcohol in my reviews unless the restaurant has a very clear focus on them. In my review of Caracol, I simply ran out of space, but I definitely think that the pastries by Ortega's brother Ruben Ortega, and the wine and cocktail menu by Sean Beck, who's been with the company for more than 14 years, are in perfect focus.
Here's why I'd recommend not leaving Caracol without dipping into a few drinks and the majestic El Coco.
5. Paloma de Mercado
Photo by Kenn Stearns Perhaps the best Paloma in Houston.
There are few cocktails more refreshing than a good Paloma, rife with grapefruit and chilled tequila. Caracol's website calls the Paloma "Mexico's most cherished cocktail," and to pay homage to it, Beck has created two unique versions. My favorite is the Paloma de Mercado, made with your choice of mezcal, tequila or sotol, a cousin of mezcal and tequila. The liquor is combined with lime juice and house-made Tajín soda. Tajín is a Mexican seasoning and hot sauce that Beck uses to flavor a soda with a kick. I recommend ordering this drink with the mezcal for a smoky, spicy twist on the classic.
4. Mountains to the Sea
Another mezcal drink that gives The Pastry War's cocktails a run for their money is the Mountains to the Sea, a drink that combines Fidencio mezcal, gin, and fresh lime and pineapple juices with cactus purée and spicy pickled cacti (in Spanish, nopales). Like the Paloma, it's a bit smoky from the mezcal, but it's much more tart, thanks to the acid from the pineapple juice and the very fresh, green taste of the nopales purée. Then a bit of spice comes in with the pickled nopales for a finish that's unexpected and dynamic.
3. Hot Chocolate and Churros
Yes, this is also on the menu at Hugo's, but at Caracol the churros are given a tropical makeover by being stuffed with pineapple. The exterior is crisp and sugary, with a slight give that leads into the warm, mushy pineapple center. Churros are served with sorbet and the signature hot chocolate developed at Hugo's. It's rich and slightly spicy, with a big hit of cinnamon. Dip the churros in the hot chocolate for the best effect. You'll be surprised how well pineapple and chocolate pair.
My favorite cocktail on the menu is under the "margaritas" heading, but it's not the much-talked about $28 "Greatest Margarita Ever Sold" (though that one is certainly good). I prefer the more subdued Zihuatanejo, a blend of mezcal, crème de violette and fresh lime juice with a salted margarita foam. Clearly, Caracol has inspired me to have a mezcal moment. It's the unique pairing of smoky mezcal and delicate crème de violette liqueur, coupled with a burst of lime, that makes this variant on a margarita so intriguing. The salted margarita foam takes the place of a salted rim and adds yet another flavor element to the simple but addictive drink.
1. El Coco
I love this dessert, not just for its novelty (it comes with a wooden mallet!), but also because it's truly delicate and nuanced once you get inside that hard shell. Arguably the biggest hit (after the oysters, of course) to emerge from the young restaurant, El Coco is designed to resemble a coconut from the outside. The inside is filled with coconut buttercream icing, coconut ganache, coconut streusel and whipped coconut. The only way to get to the sweet, creamy center is to whack open the shell with the little wooden mallet. Not only is it delicious, it's also fun. And I love any restaurant that invites me, as Caracol sometimes does, to play with my food.