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  1. Expansion is always a scary word for acolytes of a particular restaurant. Although it often results in financial stability, a new creative avenue, and the room to retain or promote staff -- as a selfish group, us diners demand our favorite chef to be chained to his or her one restaurant, serving us with the dedication of a lifelong host. For Hugo Ortega, who is the American dream personified (Mexican immigrant dishwasher to James Beard award winner), expansion is just another way to demonstrate why he’s one of the best chefs in Texas. Xochi is the newest of the four restaurants he runs in Houston, opened this year, and a no better argument for adding even more to his mini-empire. Occupying one corner of the brand-new and gorgeous Marriott Marquis downtown, Xochi is sleek and lively, keeping up the modern aesthetic that Mexican restaurants have finally been allowed to embrace nationwide. The food follows suit; progressive and rooted in history (mostly Oaxacan) at the same time, for an all-together exciting meal that deviates just enough from Ortega’s other restaurants. Infladita de conejo ($14) -- Ortega’s version of the Olvera-popularized street snack. A puffed black tortilla cradled a sizable portion of braised rabbit, the bitterness of the fried tortilla balancing out the sweet, tomato-braised conejo. Red and green sauces with raisins and almonds rounded out the dish. Something old, something new, but a complete success. Puerco en mole de chicatana ($15) -- The pork ribs are fine on their own; obviously distant in comparison to the smoked meats found at true barbecue pits. But the real magic is when you pull apart the meat and slather on the “ant” mole served underneath. Ortega has long welcomed the presence of insects in his cuisine, and ants are what I assume account for the acidic and sweet notes in the otherwise hearty mole. Add the mole-doused rib meat to the accompanying corn tortillas (which probably have an interesting heritage, as they were a pale gold color and flecked with blue), and you have one hell of a taco. Helado de maiz ($9) -- Two types of ice cream here: one sweet corn, the other queso fresco. The former is playfully represented as baby ears of corn. Crumbled corn cookie and a dab of cinnamon-y, atole-influenced corn cream acted as garnish. Very fun and just right for those who pass on cloying or heavy final courses. I expect Xochi to be better a year from now, as any weak points get discarded and the best dishes are fine-tuned into perfection. Right now it’s excellent, and I would urge anyone traveling to the city to make time for a meal there. Houston is lucky to have Hugo Ortega, and his followers are lucky to have so many different ways to enjoy his cooking.
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