If Chris Shepherd’s One Fifth is Houston’s most eagerly anticipated restaurant that’s expected to open between now and Super Bowl LI, then surely Xochi, the new restaurant from five-time James Beard Award finalist Hugo Ortega and his wife/business partner Tracy Vaught, is a very close second. The Houston First Corporation revealed that Xochi would be one of the six restaurants opening in the new Marriott Marquis downtown back in July, but, with only a few weeks until its opening in January, Ortega and Vaught have finally revealed some details about the restaurant’s influences.
Xochi – from Xochitl, Goddess of the Flowers, and meaning to bloom or catch fire (pronounced So-chi) — takes its inspiration from the Mexican region of Oaxaca. Dubbed the “culinary capital of Mexico” by Ortega and Vaught in a press release, Oaxaca is certainly having its moment nationally — celebrity chef Rick Bayless opened a restaurant in Chicago inspired by the region earlier this year — but Ortega, who lived there during his childhood, has his own deep connection to the area.
“Oaxaca is so rich with culinary diversity and traditions and is a place I never tire of visiting,” said Ortega in a statement. “Its large size and numerous geographic regions hold endless interest for me as a chef and as a Mexican native. The richness of the love I feel for cooking goes back to time spent there preparing food with my mother and grandmother. Xochi is my tribute to Oaxaca and its culinary wealth.”
To fulfill that goal, Xochi will serve dishes inspired by Oaxaca’s diverse regions and incorporate herbs like poleo, pitiona, hierba de conejo that are native to the region. An entire section of the menu will feature mole: everything from classic mole negro to mole de chicatana (ant mole). Mole sampler platters will be available for those who want to explore the full breadth of options.
In addition, the restaurant will utilize a wood-fired oven for dishes like barbacoa and Tlayudas, a pizza-like large, thin tortilla topped with different ingredients. Of course, tacos and other streets foods will all be available, and the tortillas will be made in-house.
Ortega’s brother, pastry chef Ruben, will utilize chocolate made from scratch, starting with cacao beans that are roasted and ground in the restaurant. Non-chocolate desserts will utilize fruits and herbs from Oaxaca.
On the beverage side, Sean Beck will feature mezcal, Oaxaca’s signature spirit, as well as wine and beer made in the region. The wine list will be global in scope by will all of the vintages served will “follow the models of sustainability, organics and/or biodynamic viticulture.”
While Ortega’s reputation will certainly help Xochi be a draw, the restaurant is not without its risk. Despite the efforts of talented chefs like Bryan Caswell at the Hotel Icon (prior to opening Reef), Ryan Pera at the Sam Houston Hotel (then the Alden), and Jonathan Jones at the Hotel ZaZa, Houstonians have never fully embraced dining at a hotel.
Then again, none of those chefs opened a restaurant when they were flying as high as Ortega, who recently saw his namesake restaurant Hugo’s become the only Houston restaurant on Eater’s list of America’s 38 best restaurants. Perhaps the Marriott Marquis, with its 1,000 rooms and luxurious amenities like a Texas-shaped lazy river, will be so busy with travelers that the restaurant won’t need support from Houstonians.
Or maybe, like Caracol and Hugo’s, the food will be so delicious that Houstonians will overcome their reluctance and learn to love dining at a hotel.