The countdown has begun, as one of Houston’s most talented female chefs is gearing up to debut her first restaurant in the Woodlands next week. Named Xalisko Cocina Mexicana, after the Mexican state of Jalisco, the project is the first for chef Beatriz Martines, the former corporate chef and culinary director at Hugo Ortega’s H-Town Restaurant Group.
Born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico into a restaurant-minded family, Martines grew up in her grandmother’s fonda, a small family-owned restaurant, flipping tortillas by age seven, and helping her mother and six aunts with cooking by age 10. She married young at 18, and moved to Houston with her husband, taking a job as a cafeteria lunch lady at Willbern Elementary and Moore Elementary at Cy-Fair ISD, before attending culinary school at the Art Institute of Houston. Since then, she’s been working towards her ultimate dream of opening up a restaurant of her own. Xalisko, which is entirely self-funded with some help from Martines’ family, is the result of that lifelong dream.
With seating capacity for 180, including two private dining rooms and a large 26-seat bar, the 5,500-square-foot space is beautiful and ambitious. Designed to pull in natural light from outside, green foliage juxtaposed against custom woodwork and natural elements imbue the space with a luxurious Mexican resort feel. Martines commissioned a custom triptych of Huichol Art—colorful bead and yarn tapestries made by The Huichol, a group indigenous to the Sierra Madre Occidental Range and Jalisco—as a main feature of the dining room. Traditional Mexican equipale chairs, made of leather and cedar wood by artisans in Tonala, Jalisco, and bar stools with a hand-crafted design on the back, along with other handiworks that hail from her homeland, are employed throughout the restaurant.
The opening menu features six sections: Antojitos de Mercado (market street foods), Antojitos Playeros (beach street foods), Mariscos y Aves (seafood and fowl), Carnes (meats), and Para Compartir (to share). Martines has a separate menu for desserts, and all is complemented by a complete beverage program featuring beer, wine, spirits, and cocktails.
“We’re doing very traditional food, but with a modern touch,” says Martines. “We’re basing it on the Pacific and Midwestern parts of Mexico — Jalisco, Michoacan, Nayarit — because I identify with those more and have been studying them for years.”
From Jalisco, you’ll find dishes like Birria Tatemada, a hefty lamb shank that’s marinated in peppers and adobo, wrapped in agave leaf, then cooked until tender and swimming in soulfully flavored juices.
As a nod to her father and grandfather, both of whom were corn farmers, there’s an antojito of Xquites con Tuetano—fresh corn esquites (Mexican street corn) over roasted bone marrow.
“From Nayarit, I will have good ceviches,” she says. “And from Michoacan and Jalisco, we will have different moles.” While many chefs and cooks visit Oaxaca or Puebla for their moles, Martines went back to Jalisco and got inspiration from the traditional cooking of her hometown. “They are named the same—mole—but the ingredients are totally different. We don’t use epazote or hoja Santa. We make moles with local ingredients, such as guajillo chile.”
As for her signature dish, the one that’s a must-not-miss — that would be her Trompito al Pastor, a dish that dates back to the time she worked as a cafeteria lunch lady. Back then, she helped supplement her income with a weekend catering business named Taquizas, and her speciality was a trompo al pastor. This dish pays homage to that period of her career, and is presented as a full mini-sized trompo, a vertical rotating spit, of adobo-marinated pork served on a wooden platter with grilled vegetables, salsa, and fresh corn tortillas.
Though this is Martines’ first restaurant project, she’s been a prominent figure in the Houston restaurant industry for more than a decade. In the seven years leading up to this moment, she served as chef Hugo Ortega’s right hand, hired in as a culinary director and later promoted to corporate chef for the entire hospitality group, which included Xochi, Caracol, Hugo’s, Backstreet Café, Hugo’s Cocina, and Mi Almita Cantina.
Prior to that, Martines was one of two recipients chosen for a coveted four-month scholarship and apprenticeship at the three-star Michelin El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain. As one of the most distinguished dining establishments in the world, it has twice taken first place in the Worlds 50 Best Restaurants awards.
Even before the high profile apprenticeship, Martines had the makings of a star. As an intern at the Art Institute, she caught the eye of Mexican celebrity chef Aquiles Chavez, who offered her an apprenticeship for his Houston restaurant, La Fisheria, and later promoted her to sous chef.
“I am the first woman on my dad’s side and my mom’s side to go to high school and college,” says Martines. “We’ve been trying for years to open a restaurant. I can’t tell you how happy and excited I am that the time has now come.”