Much anticipated, Caracol is the new restaurant from Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega (Backstreet, Hugo’s, Prego). Located in the new BBVA Compass building on Post Oak, the cuisine is Mexican-focused seafood. (Aptly named, Caracol is Spanish for snail, although we didn’t see any snails on the menu.) This place has been jumping from the start, reservations are a must at least on weekends. We’ve dined there twice, both on Saturday evenings, and the surprisingly large space (particularly compared to its neighbor, Osteria Mazzantini) has been packed both times. There’s an ample bar area, with an outside patio that will be lovely when the weather warms up. We dined the second time at the bar (no reservations required), and it appeared all the seats were taken by diners.
It’s clear everything has been extremely well thought out, from the creative cocktail menu to the food offerrings. While there are plenty of wine choices (well-known sommelier Sean Beck guides this restaurant as he does the other Vaught/Ortega venues), we’ve thought the food worked well with the many tequila and agave cocktail offerrings; we’ve enjoyed the Gran Especial (classic margarita),Mountains to the Sea (a smoky, citrus mezcal and gin based cooler), and Past the Heather (a manhattan-style drink made with anejo tequila).
On both occasions, we sampled a number of small plates which seemed to be the approach taken by many of the diners around us. Dreams are made of the wood fired, cooked in the shell, parmesan crusted oysters; having had half a dozen on our first visit, we ordered a dozen the second time. The wood-roasted pork ribs were also two-timers for us as was the coal roasted eggplant puree. And on our next visit, we’ll go again for the crusty charred boneless pork foot with pickled vegetables. The conch ceviche was beautifully presented but we wanted a little more citrus and chile. The crispy tuna tacos were lovely bites of tuna, with guacamole and refried beans, in a soft flour tortilla. The chicharron crusted calamari was a creative twist on that ubiquitous dish that we feel obliged to try at pretty much every restaurant that offers it.
Service was excellent. It’s clear the waitstaff has been well trained. And management was walking the floor, keeping a careful eye on everyone. Feel free to valet park, but there’s validated parking in the very accessible covered garage attached to the building, with an elevator right near the restaurants.
2200 Post Oak Boulevard
Having indulged in a lot of upscale dining on our recent trip to Great Britain, we were looking for a very casual spot one recent Saturday evening. We remembered that Chris Shepherd (formerly Catalan, now Underbelly) raves about the cabrito at a Mexican place on Long Point (home to many wonderful ethnic retaurants). It didn’t take much research to identify this as El Hildaguense, which also gets raves from other Houston foodies, including Houston Press awards for best cabrito.
Although we arrived early in the evening, the two-piece combo was in full swing entertaining the entirely Hispanic crowd. It was quite helpful that one of us speaks Spanish, although the menu is in both English and Spanish. This is a casual place, even by Houston Mexican restaurant standards. If you’re put off by old formica tables and less than perfect bathrooms, don’t make the trip. You’ll be missing out on great food, but your dining sensibilities won’t be offended.
This is not Tex-Mex. Beer only, no margaritas, no tequila. And no chips and salsa. Everyone gets a complimentary chicken flauta which, although a little dry and greasy, perked up immeasurably in the wonderful ancho chili based salsa. Although we’d come for the cabrito, we wanted to try a few other dishes. The queso fundido knocked our socks off; we don’t think we’ve ever had better, and it was all about the chorizo. (A steal at $3.99.) Served with corn tortillas (be sure to pay a little extra for the “handmade”), this stuff was fabulous.
When we looked around the room, many parties were ordering plates of chunked and shredded meat that was clearly not cabrito. It was lamb barbacoa, which we’ve not typically seen in Mexican restaurants. We ordered both the roast cabrito (cooked on a large grill that opens to the restaurant) and the lamb. While the cabrito was very good (and not inexpensive at $20), it was the lamb that we really enjoyed. Not heavily seasoned, but very tender and moist, shredded and layered in one of those homemade corn tortillas, with some of the salsa, it was quite delicious. We didn’t realize until after we’d finished that, on weekends, they also serve the lamb cooked in foil with a chili sauce. We’ll be back for that soon. The cabrito was served with a charro bean soup (very tasty, particularly when doctored with some onion, lime and cilantro), and the lamb came with a very spicy lamb consomme with hominy, which we didn’t care for as much as the charro beans but still quite good. The lamb was also sided by a nopales (cactus) salad which was a very good version of this classic dish.
No question this is worth a trip.
6917 Long Point
Cheese, glorious cheese.
Chips, salsa and queso
Tex-Mex that we long for
Screw the reviews, just go
If Oliver and his fellow orphans had been fed El Real’s Tex-Mex Fare, they would have found sufficient sustenance to pick half the pockets in London. While the Caswell/Floyd/Walsh culinary creations may not have been available in the Dickens era, we’re lucky to have in Houston this new contribution to Texas’ most beloved cuisine. (Apologies to those who consider barbecue to be the state food of Texas.)
Managing expectations is a key to many things in life. We didn’t go to El Real expecting the Tex-Mex version of Reef or Stella Sola. Not even sure we could have figured out what that would be. Probably a culinary oxymoron. And, while we’ve enjoyed meals at both those restaurants, we don’t consider them to be a barometer for measuring great food. It seemed more important to us that the former Houston Press restaurant critic and book author, Robb Walsh, was involved in El Real’s development. Which makes it all the more surprising that a Houston Press food blogger recently trashed pretty much every aspect of a Happy Hour experience at El Real. And the foodie websites have received plenty of comments about this place. It’s amazing how touchy people are about their Tex-Mex.
For the record, we had a great experience at El Real. We arrived later in the evening on a Saturday night. We were greeted warmly at the door, given a number of seating options, and quickly brought water, chips and salsa. The salsa has been slammed by a number of commentators. It’s not spicy or chunky like a pico de gallo style salsa. It’s smokier and thinner. But “tomato water” is not a fair characterization. We also understand (but didn’t try) that, upon request, they’ll bring you a much spicier salsa. The chips were fresh and who cares about salsa anyway when you can dip your chip in El Real’s yummy queso.
Not having got enough of the queso, we ordered the now almost famous # 7 cheese enchiladas topped with more of the stuff. (That’s a # 10.) The enchiladas were absolutely delicious, served piping hot, and so amazingly rich that we couldn’t handle much more than a few bites. (Great leftovers.) Sided by lard enriched refried beans and fluffy rice, these enchiladas are worth the trip alone. We also tried the puffy tacos (beef and pork) and enjoyed them. We aren’t puffy taco afficianados, so we couldn’t compare them to the San Antonio version about which everyone raves.
There’s no question we’ll be back to El Real.
Family in town one weekend gave us an occasion to return to this highly regarded Mexican restaurant known for its authentic, upscale cuisine. The restaurant, decorated in subtle and sophisticated hues of blue and red, is housed in a restored art deco building on Westheimer between Shepherd and Montrose. The room is spacious and open, with a high ceiling and large windows.
We have dined at Hugo’s a number of times, enjoying them all. No Tex-Mex here. The menu lists many interesting and enticing items, the large majority of which you wouldn’t find at Pappasitos or Ninfa’s (Navigation location or otherwise). And you pay for the freshly made chips and salsa. The seafood campechana is good, but it’s no Goode Company. We particularly enjoyed the lamb barbacoa. The cabrito, served in a banana leaf, was too bland, notwithstanding the side of habenero salsa. Hugo’s is well known for its variety of tequilas, including a number of interesting margaritas made with different tequilas. Served tableside on the rocks in a martini shaker, there’s no frozen stuff coming out of a machine here.
Our most recent visit was for the popular Sunday Brunch. Reservations are advisable. The only option is the bountiful buffet, so come hungry. Service was not as attentive as at other meals, and the band was a little loud. But the food was great. There were numerous hot and cold items, as well as a dessert table ladened with various sweets. Highlights included the guacamole (some of the best in town), napolitos salad, beef brisket in achiote, chile rellenas, chilaquiles, mushroom quesadillas, mini tostadas with refried black beans, squash blossom soup, seafood enchiladas, and meatballs stuffed with rice and queso fresco. Everything was wonderfully spiced, with varying degrees of heat. We weren’t too excited about a couple of the entree items — the tamales did not pass the test of seasoned tamale makers and the whole roasted baby pig lay on its side in a chafing dish that reminded one of us of a bassinet. (Apologies to anyone offended by that visual.) One of our Mexican-born diners thought the flan was very good, although the same could not be said for the Mexican hot chocolate.
Hugo’s is a great place to entertain visitors to Houston. In a lovely setting that makes for a special night out or a relaxing Sunday afternoon, you can enjoy a style of Mexican cooking that is unique among Houston’s many Mexican restaurants and, in all likelihood, to anything available in your visitors’ home towns. And, although you now have to go outside the Loop for Molina’s Jose’s Dip, if you must have some vivid yellow queso, there are plenty of places to go the next day (or just throw some Velveeta and Rotel tomatos into your crockpot).
We recently tried the new Highland Village location of this Mexican restaurant. The setting is quite spacious, contemporary, and attractive, but it lacks the ethnic feel of most Mexican restaurants. We suppose that’s what plays in Highland Village. To some degree, Tex-Mex is Tex-Mex, but this place is a cut above from a quality of food standpoint. The most notable difference is the availability of healthier choices — whole wheat tortillas, fat free beans and rice, grilled vegetables. The ceviche was very good — better than most, although not up to the caliber of Goode Co’s Campechana. We also enjoyed both the spinach and chicken enchiladas. The service was much better than average.