Xochi: When the culinary art is passed from the plate to the soul.
By: Carlos Dragonné
When traveling, one of the symptoms that you can grab one, regardless of the mileage you have, it is the nostalgia. And the nostalgia reaches, usually in the form of food. One wants to retain the flavors of home, enough to survive away from her. But, when this is not possible, one has to fight to find places that bring you back home through scents, and tastes that define you to one. On this trip, the nostalgia came with a brutal attack. But we defeated quite fast. Welcome to Houston. Today’s menu serves chef Hugo Ortega at the restaurant Xochi.
Hugo Ortega has a captivating history. And I think that should be the first point of why your kitchen catches both. The stories are what we always think that are transmitted in the dishes. Come many years ago to Houston, Hugo began washing dishes in a small local and, from there, it began to rise and grow, always showing a sensitivity to the flavors and a creativity to get in behind the stove that ended up conquering, the owner of Backstreet Cafe, Tracy Vaught. And when I say “conquered”, imagine the complete package of the word. Tracy and Hugo are married and have become the head of one of the groups restaurant of greater force in Houston that Xochi is the new flagship. But, above all, Hugo and Tracy have become a marriage with ties in the mexican cuisine that is presumed in each of the corners of this city in texas where they have presence.
With the suitcases in the car, we arrived at Xochi just a few hours before boarding our flight back to Mexico city. The restaurant is part of the Marriott Marquis, one of those hotels that I have on my to-do list for my next trip to Houston. In the centre of the city, this restaurant is flying the colors and scents of Oaxaca to presumirlos and shout to the four winds the pride that you feel in the kitchen by the sources that the build.
With an interesting selection of mexican wines, and other mixtures that are in constant improvement and growth, Hugo gives us the welcome with her smile, her warmth and the personality of someone who enjoys promoting culture through the dishes that come out of the kitchen in every moment. What I call the attention of Ortega is his humility. This simplicity of a man who found success through effort and that, in spite of a huge amount of achievements that would make others to enjoy his laurels, he continues working and creating as the first day. And there is a small piece on this that I reinforce the idea and that les platicaré later.
Hugo is friendly and goes and comes to the kitchen to prepare the dishes that you expect to send us back to Mexico with the smile of knowing that we are well fed, and with the mission of making us know that there are home away from home. That way, we walked through the doors of Xochi on Walker Street but somehow we ended up in the middle of the Plaza of Santo Domingo in every dish that came to the table.
The menu screams Mexico in every dish. That is the first element to be happy in the restaurant, so we had the task to take on as a whole family in celebration of a christening, and we started with a few Molotes of Xoxocotlán and a seared Tuna that was accompanied with a Vinaigrette of Mole. Yes… you’ve read correctly. Vinaigrette-MO-LE. And you know as brutal as they imagined while reading.
While my tongue is still recovering from the remnants of a delicious Taco Kid, Hugo, we ordered a few Oysters which could well be the best mexicanization of the Rockefeller that I have ever seen in my life, because in Xochi are served with Mole Amarillo, crumb of bread and Cheese, Cotija, separating these from any dish of shells that have been tried before.
What would of Oaxaca without a Tlayuda? While in the world we know consciousness by the taco, the reality is that, to my taste, this dish should be the culinary flag that we set, and we defend them in the dining scene overall. The versatility of what you can do with it helps us to look at important regions of our kitchen and, yes… I understand that the taco is on all sides but the tlayuda was from much earlier in our culture. So, imagine my smile when it reaches a Tlayuda with Pork that has a Seat, Chorizo, Fresh Cheese, Beans, Oaxaca (obvious), Corn Roasted, and Huaxmole. Let me say it again: HU-AX-MO-LE.
Xochi is, by far, the best spaces that can be found of mexican cuisine not only in Houston, but in the united States. Hence, without anyone or anything to judge the decision, Hugo Ortega was named as the Best Chef in the Southwest by the James Beard foundation that, to say this in a colloquial, it is like receiving the Golden Palm of Gastronomy and the academy award in the same award.
While we were doing the echo of the stories of reunion with the mexican culture, Hugo lives at every opportunity and uses you to continue discovering the national cuisine in their travels through Mexico, the desserts arrive discreetly to our table. Of course, the chocolate of Oaxaca is the central protagonist of our closing. Stones and Gold is called the dessert, and nuts, chocolate and ingredients of the Isthmus of Oaxaca. The second dessert includes Chicatana and the crunchy texture surprise between the fruity flavours of the ice cream cake and Almond that embraces the heart with the memories of the paths in our land.
The afternoon progresses and the watch I will be advising that our plane is waiting. While Hugo serves a cup of hot chocolate that I traced back to those nights of winter holidays in a house in the middle of the mountains of the State of Mexico, always with chocolate from the market of Oaxaca that someone kept constant in the cupboard without I found out, I return to the same cycle emotional in that I am convinced that the kitchen is built not from recipes, but from the stories. But, like I said some time recently, I am convinced that the first big sign of greatness is humility, that you save for the trunk personal the great achievements and the challenges that it is seeking to overcome.
I return, then, to this fact that I promised to tell you a few lines above. When we talk about who is on the cuisine of oaxaca, it is inevitable to mention Rodolfo Castellanos, perhaps one of the best exponents of the cuisine of that state today. In the midst of the laughter and the stories, Hugo was limited to the comment that you have a lot of affection for Castellanos, a man he considered his friend and who, we are told, has learned in every journey that has made it to Oaxaca.
Today, a few weeks after the trip in which I crossed the doors of Xochi to get into the kitchen of Hugo Ortega, wanting to remember the name of the café in which he began when he came to America and where he met who would become the love of his life, I see until the bottom of the page of Ortega logo, Source, the restaurant of Castellanos in Oaxaca. And it is then that I discover that, from 2016, Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega, have been made co-owners of the place, convinced, I am sure, that the flavors of Oaxaca should transcend the challenges of the streets and stay intact in the hands of someone like Castellanos, the chef of the Hugo only latino to say, with a huge smile that today I understand full of pride, who has been a friend to him. That, gentlemen, is the simplicity and honesty behind the stove.
Days after our meeting, Hugo moved heaven, sea and earth to return to Houston after a trip to the city of Mexico, with the urgency of opening the doors of their kitchens after the passage of Hurricane Harvey and put your stove to the order of the brigades, rescuers, and victims. And that defines Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught and the entire team that builds and dignifies the cuisine of the Isthmus in that small corner of the center neural of Houston. Because the kitchen embraces the soul and when one is faced with an emergency, to embrace the flavors of a cuisine which has millennia of tradition is, perhaps, the greatest act of humanism and, at the same time, the most beautiful form of culinary art.