Gorge on coastal seafood at Caracol, the newest restaurant by chef Hugo Ortega, beloved for introducing Tex-Mex-loving Houstonians to authentic interior Mexican cuisine. Start with the signature Ceviche de Caracol ($14) that mixes buttery conch slices with pineapple, papaya, and red jalapeño; then try the grilled fish of the day in a piquant tomatillo-caper sauce with crispy shallots ($26) or a dozen wood-roasted Gulf oysters smothered in zippy chipotle butter ($23). For dessert, the playful El Coco ($11) is a must; pastry chef Ruben Ortega (Hugo’s brother) forms housemade chocolate into a coconut shell filled with coconut cream, which diners are encouraged to crack open with a small mallet.
Sample Houston’s cultural diversity at Underbelly. Chef Chris Shepherd finds inspiration in Szechuan, Mexican, and other cuisines from Houston’s less-traveled culinary corners, using native ingredients like by-catch seafood and grass-fed beef in unexpected ways. Ask about the day’s charcuterie offering, which could include a prosciutto plate featuring aged ham ($30) from hogs finished on Texas peanuts. The menu changes regularly, but Shepherd’s locally beloved Korean braised goat and rice dumplings tossed in a fiery gochujang sauce ($14) is always available. Save room for southern-inspired desserts like tangy vinegar custard pie with salt brittle or sweet-potato fried pie with toasted marshmallow (both $9).
Taste the eclectic fruits of collaboration at the Pass & Provisions. The innovative concept is actually two different restaurants with separate chefs, organized around one kitchen. At the more casual Provisions, start with a cocktail like the Highline ($10), which tempers the bite of peppercorn rye whiskey with maple syrup and charred grapefruit. Fanciful main dishes range from a monkfish and scallop ballotine wrapped in bacon ($27) to pizza topped with duck confit, mustard, and pickled currants ($19). The whimsy continues on a much grander scale at the tasting-menu-only the Pass (five courses for $75, eight for $95), where dinner is served inside a stark white dining room with a full view of the kitchen. Dishes highlight textural contrasts, and might include a creamy poached egg sprinkled with miso-flavored cauliflower and macadamia nut, or fresh cappelletti dumplings flavored with nori and floating in a broth with matsutake mushrooms.