For a certain segment of Houston diners, none of the restaurants opening before Super Bowl LI are more intriguing than Xochi, chef Hugo Ortega’s Oaxacan restaurant in the Marriott Marquis that will open for dinner Friday night. Since opening Hugo’s with his wife and business partner Tracy Vaught in 2002, Ortega, a five times James Beard Best Chef Southwest finalist, has helped shaped Houstonians’ understanding of the differences between Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican cuisine.
At Xochi (pronounced “So-Chee”), Ortega will tell the story of Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico with a diverse and storied culinary history. The region lies at the intersection of three mountain ranges and also has an extensive coastline. Described by both Ortega and Vaught as relatively poor, the region has held onto its culinary traditions, and that heritage has drawn celebrity chefs like Chicago’s Rick Bayless and Rene Redzepi (Noma in Copenhagen) to it.
“It feels preserved,” Vaught says. “I think that’s why chefs love to go there.” But Ortega doesn’t want to talk about why he’s opening a Oaxacan restaurant now.
“Why did it take us so long, I think that would be a more interesting question,” he says. Okay, chef, why did it take you so long?
That story takes Ortega back to the opening of Hugo’s. To create the proper flavors, he began working with an importer to bring in peppers and spices that hadn’t been available in America. Over time, the relationship blossomed to the point that Ortega now feels he has the right ingredients to replicate the state’s flavors.
In addition, Vaught and Ortega’s decision to invest in Origin, a restaurant in Oaxaca, gave the chef the opportunity to study the cuisine professionally. He became convinced that a Oaxacan restaurant would work in Houston. When the Marriott approached him and Vaught about opening a restaurant in the hotel, they made the decision to move forward.
“What I know about Oaxaca is they’re the most beautiful people, the most beautiful state. At the same time, it’s very poor in many ways,” Ortega says. “From a gastronomic point of view, the soil is wonderful. Anything can grow in Oaxaca. It’s a really broad spectrum of plants and animals.”
Shaped by childhood
Xochi’s dishes are shaped by Ortega’s childhood — he grew up in Puebla near the border with Oaxaca — and frequent travels to the region as an adult. For example, Sopa de Piedra, a shrimp and fish soup, takes its inspiration from a spot near Oaxaca city where locals cook freshly caught shrimp in a rock indentation near a riverbed. To replicate that experience, diners receive a bowl with raw shrimp and vegetables. After pouring in broth, a server places three rocks that have been heated to 600 degrees in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven, which heats the broth enough to cook the shrimp.
At lunch, Xochi will feature four Tlayudas, thin, crispy, slightly chewy tortillas that are topped with a variety of ingredients, such as one with rendered pork fat, black beans, and pork rib meat. The tlayudas tortillas are made in Mexico and shipped to Houston.
Other lunch options include the two for $22 small plates that are a staple at both Hugo’s and Caracol; the tetela, a blue corn tortilla that’s folded over and filled with hoja santa, housemade cheese, and salsa, almost eats like a Oaxacan calzone. Slightly less adventuresome travelers can opt for more familiar fare like a burger or enchiladas.
At dinner, the restaurant features dishes like scallops with mole verde and grilled skirt steak rolled with hoja santa. All of the dishes build layers of flavors and feature the herbs and peppers that Ortega imports for his restaurants.
Ambitious pastry and drinks menu
Just as Ortega is using Xochi to grow professionally, the chef’s brother, pastry chef Ruben Ortega, will present an ambitious new menu at the restaurant that’s divided between chocolate and non-chocolate desserts. All of the chocolate items utilize cocoa beans that are roasted at the restaurant. For example, the Cremoso de Chocolate, is a creamy chocolate pudding that’s topped with peanut powder and presented with a chocolate branch that ties into the word Xochitl, which means to bloom or catch fire. Helado de Maiz presents corn ice cream that’s shaped like baby corn in honor of Oaxaca’s devotion to the plant.
As for drinks, beverage director Sean Beck will offer a range of Oaxacan spirits, wines, and even craft beer. The region is known for its mezcal production, but Beck wants to change people’s perceptions of it as purely a smoky, more assertive alternative to tequila.
“Mezcal for the most part is not as smoky as people make it out to be,” Beck says. “I like to compare mezcal less to Scotch and bourbon and more to pinot noir. It’s such a terroir variation spirit that has a lot of subtleties and nuance to it.”
Just as Beck compares mezcal’s variety of flavors to wine, he’s also priced the spirit at a wine-like markup that makes it more affordable. “Things I’ve seen around the United States being sold for $55, $60 a shot, we’re going to be doing at $25, $30. I don’t want to prevent people from trying these spirits,” he says.
With the Marriott Marquis serving as the official hotel for NFL executives and high profile media members, Xochi’s first week of business promises to be packed. Tables may be hard to come by, but the opportunity to dine on mole and knock back some mezcal alongside NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or Fox broadcaster Joe Buck might just make braving the crowd worth the hassle.
Or just wait until after the hoopla winds down. Hugo Ortega is ready to share the flavors of Oaxaca with Houston. Given his track records of success, expect lots of Houstonians to taste what he’s preparing.
Xochi: 1777 Walker Street; 713-400-3330; Open for dinner Friday through Sunday; Lunch and dinner beginning January 30.