Food & Drink

The Year in Southern Restaurants: Xochi

Twenty years in the making, chef Hugo Ortega’s new Houston establishment is well worth the wait

Photo: Paula Murphy

Callo de Hacha at Xochi in Houston, Texas.

We’re profiling five of 2017’s most exciting new restaurants in the South—one per day, in the order they opened.

Houston, Texas
Opened: January 2017

Photo: Julie Soefer

Chef Hugo Ortega at Xochi.

On any given day there will be twelve fresh moles in the kitchen at Xochi, Hugo Ortega’s ode to the ingredients, recipes, and traditions of Oaxaca, Mexico. There may be a mole verde, emerald green with Mexican herbs like hoja santa and chepiche; a mole amarillo, vibrant yellow and spicy with costeño amarillo peppers; and a mole negro, black with house-ground cacao pods. There may even be a mole fashioned from the flying ants called chicatana. “When I look at the moles lined up in the steam table,” says Ortega, “I think I probably have at least five-hundred ingredients there.”

Photo: Paula Murphy

Mole tasting at Xochi.

For the chef—who won a James Beard Award for his flagship Mexican restaurant, Hugo’s, in 2017—Xochi is his most personal project yet. “Oaxaca has been in my soul and my memories since I was a young kid,” he says, recalling visits to his Oaxacan grandmother, who would grind spices for her mole on a stone metate and then cook it over a citronella candle. Yet this restaurant has also required the most research, conducted over twenty years. On culinary tours, Ortega studied the foodways of the region’s sixteen indigenous groups and their distinctive larders—the chiles, herbs, varieties of corn, and even insects that aren’t used elsewhere in Mexico. “It’s like going back in time.”

Photo: Paula Murphy

A tlayuda.

Working with importers, local farmers, and a kitchen crew that makes both its own chocolate and raw-milk quesillo cheese, Ortega manages to distill the many flavors of Oaxaca into an urbane menu. Most tables start with a tlayuda, a crisp disk of oven-blasted masa spread with beans, cheese, and toppings like a pizza. “We sell over three-hundred a day,” says Ortega, adding, “Oaxaca is the belly of the country, and the belly of the world as far as I’m concerned.”

Don’t miss: The tasting of four moles with housemade tortillas