Hugo’s Regional Mexican Cuisine… the Test and Taste of Authenticity

In my opinion, Hugo’s has the most extensive all-around selection of authentic regional Mexican cuisine of any restaurant in Houston.

I spend as much as half of my time in Mexico writing about the cultures and cuisines for my blog  Jack Tyler’s Mexico.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that I am asked almost every day to recommend the “best Mexican restaurant in Houston” based upon my day job as a Mexico travel writer.  I decided it’s time to talk about some of these Houston eating establishments and what I feel is offered in them as authentic Mexican dishes.  I thought I would take a look at how far one may go in seeking “real Mexican food” without having to cross the border of our neighbor, Mexico.  Many Mexican restaurants in Houston boast of the authenticity of their menus and at some point or another, we’ve checked a lot of them out.

I found that Hugo’s was the answer that I gave to the question more often than not.  There are others I frequent when I am in the mood for Mexican food, but frankly, Hugo’s is my favorite, I decided to start with it and move on along the list. The engine that runs any restaurant is the chef/owner and Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s exemplifies this rule.

Chef Hugo Ortega with Diana Kennedy at her home in Mexico
Born in Mexico City as one of 8 children, at the age of 15, Hugo Ortega was working in a Proctor & Gamble plant in Mexico.  In the 80’s he moved to Houston and worked as a dish washer, then later as a busboy.  He made little money, but worked hard and learned English while learning the back of the restaurant house from (literally) the bottom up. He eventually earned a culinary degree and, as far as I can tell… he has never stopped his quest to learn and cook the regional Mexican dishes that he had not even tasted prior to his decision to move to Houston.  He makes four to six culinary journeys to Mexico annually and regularly attends cooking classes taught by his mentors in Mexico, such as Diana Kennedy. This is important, as there are many chefs in the U.S. promoting “regional” cuisines of Mexico, but in many cases, they promote only the dishes that they grew up eating as children or cooking as adults. In the case of Ortega and his restaurant, both are always a work in progress.

Huachinango a la Veracruzana (Snapper Veracruz) photo by Paula Murphy
A dish that can immediately sell me on any Mexican restaurant is authentic Snapper Veracruz, or Huachinango a la Veracruzana.  This is a favorite dish from the state of Veracruz and one that a trip to the port city of Veracruz is not complete without. It is so loved across Mexico that cooking classes I have taken as far away from Veracruz as Cancun and Cabo San Lucas have included it.  This Gulf Red Snapper loaded with olives, capers, bell peppers, onions and tomatoes is one of my favorite Mexican dishes.  Hugo’s version of it may as well have been made in my favorite Veracruz restaurant, Villa Rica. While on the menu at many Mexican restaurants in Houston, it is prepared properly at Hugo’s and is a destination dish as far as I am concerned.
Chiles en Nogada are served only when pomegranates are in season.

A true test of a Mexican restaurant’s dedication to regionality, as well as seasonality (unfortunately… as I would love to have it year-round) is Chiles en Nogada, a dish that many would call the “national dish” of Mexico.  To make a long story interminable, the dish was “invented” in the town of Puebla in 1821 by Augustinian nuns of the Santa Monica convent to honor Agustin de Iturbide, the commander of the Mexican army who had fought in the battle for Mexico’s independence. The treaty that granted Mexico this independence was signed in Veracruz and on his way back to Mexico City, de Iturbide was treated by the nuns with a dish using local and seasonal  ingredients, called chiles en nogada, which means chile (in this case, a Poblano pepper ) in walnut sauce.  The dish has the colors of the Mexican flag in it… red from the seeds of the pomegranate; white from the walnut sauce; and green from the Poblano chile. The period of time that the dish is served in Mexico, as well as at Hugo’s is determined by the season for the pomegranate and when the seeds are no longer fresh and crisp, the dish is discontinued until the following year.

While the dish is out of season at this writing, Chiles en Nogada are a prominent component of Hugo’s seasonal menu and, as one who has enjoyed the dish in Puebla, as well as throughout Mexico, Hugo’s is truly authentic and it is served as it is in Mexico, with the walnut sauce (nogada) cold or at room temperature.  Hugo’s recipe follows this prescription.  Don’t look for it now at Hugo’s, as it is out of season and he is serving his summer menu of squash blossom dishes. I have tasted and reviewed several of these in this article, as they are now available and without exception, delicious. By the way, all of the squash (and blossoms) served at Hugo’s is local and grown for him on a farm near Houston.

Chapulines (Grasshoppers)
I chose to make mine into tacos with Hugo’s
Chipotle Tomatillo Salsa and Guacamole

Throughout the southern Pacific coast of Mexico (Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas), no culinary stone seems to be unturned, as it is the land of the edible bug!  While the mecca of the consumption of grasshoppers, or Chapulines, is Oaxaca, I’ve strolled through the market in the Tzotzil Maya community of San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, and bought bags of Chapulines fried on a comal with oil, garlic, salt and lime to snack on like popcorn as I shopped. They’re served all over Mexico and most of them probably come from Oaxaca. 

This Tzotzil Maya woman in the indigenous village of  Zinacantan,
Chiapas cooks on a traditional comal.  Although she was making tortillas
 for me, she has also fried Chapulines on the same surface.

In La Diferencia in Tijuana, Chapuline Sopes are on the menu and I’ve followed Andrew Zimmern in there to tape an episode for his Bizarre Foods where he proudly ate what Mexicans all over the country consider nothing more exotic than hopping popcorn.  The Chapulines at Hugo’s are the perfect size for crispy sautéing (They are traditionally graded in three sizes) and I made three tacos from the order with guacamole, tortillas and chipotle tomatillo salsa. In case you are wondering what grasshoppers taste like, all I say is that they taste exactly like sautéed grasshoppers (not chicken)…YUM.

Also, by the way, Hugo cooks with lard!  While I’m talking about a restaurant in Baja California (Tijuana) it reminds me that the importance of lard in Mexican cooking was never driven home to me as clearly as it was in a little town called Puerto Nuevo.  It’s a lobster village on the Pacific with nearly forty restaurants and nothing else, it seems.  All sell a dish called Puerto Nuevo-style lobster… a spiny lobster boiled, then finished off by frying in lard. They’re delicious and they get a unique flavor from the lard.  Hugo doesn’t serve them, but he uses lard in many of the dishes he offers in his restaurant… because he wants to duplicate the unique flavors that certain dishes have when prepared in Mexico.  That special flavor is subtly there in his carnitas, quesadillas, cochinita pibil, carnitas de pato, lechon and of course… his beans. And, because of the beans, it’s in his empanadas.  It’s a small thing, but if one is going to cook food like that in Mexico, one should cook like a Mexican.

Sopa de Flor de Calabaza (Squash Blossom Soup)

Now, to the seasonal Squash Blossom menu being served at Hugo’s as I write.  Plentiful in Mexico, Diana Kennedy uses squash blossoms frequently in casseroles, quesadillas and soups.  In the U.S., Rick Bayless is fond of them and they are used in his restaurant in Chicago. Hugo’s Sopa de Flor de Calabaza, or Squash Blossom Soup, is the best way to start to appreciate the tastes and beauty of the squash as a basis for all of the dishes offered on the seasonal menu.  In Mexico, by the way, Calabaza means “pumpkin”, but several types of squash are used, as are their flowers.  This rich soup is made with squash, corn, chicken stock, onions and garlic with masa (corn flour) dumplings.  Garnished with a squash blossom, this is a beautiful dish. More points for authenticity.
Platón de Flor de Calabaza

A nice way for two to share samples of various squash blossom dishes would be the Platón de Flor de Calabaza is a sampler plate including Stuffed Squash Blossoms, Squash Blossom Quesadillas, Coctel de Flor de Calabaza and Sopesitos de Flor de Calabaza (small sopés). This is a well-spent $38.00 for two to share and there’s no tourist food on it.

Enchiladas with Squash Blossoms, Calabacitas, Poblano

A favorite for me on the Squash Blossom menu is the Enchiladas entrée.   Two enchiladas are stuffed with squash blossoms, corn, poblano and calabacitas (miniature squash) and topped with tomatillo salsa and crema fresca.  This is a wonderful dish and I recommend it heartily.

Caesar Cardini making the original Caesar’s
Salad at his restaurant in Tijuana (I took this
shot of a framed old photo in the restaurant).
I like the fact that Hugo Ortega offers a Caesar’s Salad as authentic Mexican food. I’m usually stared at when I talk about my obsession with the Caesar’s Salad (It’s NOT Caesar Salad) as authentic Mexican food.  Not that it is typical of any other Mexican cuisines, but that it was first prepared in Mexico and it’s not named after Julius Caesar, but after Caesar Cardini, an immigrant to the San Diego area of California.  Cardini, in attempt to skirt the laws of Prohibition, opened a restaurant in Tijuana in the early 1920’s as primarily an Italian restaurant (serving liquor).  Late one night, some American aviators came to the restaurant to dine and drink and wanted something to munch on.  Scrounging around the kitchen, Caesar (or his brother… there’s disagreement on this point) came up with some finger food for the pilots to eat with their drinks.  Whole romaine leaves with a dressing made of olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, eggs, garlic, parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and croutons were the munchies and it became so popular that it was placed on the menu and called Aviator’s Salad.  It was later called Caesar’s Salad. 

Hugo’s Caesar’s Salad
is made with Caesar Cardini’s original recipe.
When I was taught to make the salad in the kitchen of Caesar’s restaurant in Tijuana, I was taught to use anchovies, although Cardini originally felt that the Worcestershire sauce had enough anchovy in it already.  There’s actually no record of when Caesar started putting anchovies in the dressing, but he eventually did. Ortega uses the original recipe and adds anchovies, as is done today in Tijuana, but is happy to serve it with or without.  Ortega also serves the Romaine lettuce in smaller pieces to be eaten with a fork, but is very happy to serve it with the whole Romaine heart leaves for those who try it as finger food like the original.

Traditional dances from all regions of Mexico are performed
on two stages at Hugo’s Cinco de Mayo celebration.

 Cinco de Mayo (5th of May) is the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla where the French were soundly defeated by Mexico on May 5th, 1862.  This is a Puebla event, however, it freed all of Mexico and it is celebrated throughout Mexico.  While Ortega has roots in Puebla and Mexico City (100 miles apart), he celebrates the cuisines and cultures of the entire country in Hugo’s annually on Cinco de Mayo.  Most recently, folklorico dancers from across Mexico performed in their respective traditional dress as revelers dined upon special drinks and a buffet of typical regional dishes from across Mexico. Cinco de Mayo celebration at Hugo’s is a celebration of an entire country’s heritage.
Cinco de Mayo is a serious celebration at Hugo’s

In short (I guess it hasn’t been short), one of the restaurants that I most often mention when I am asked what my favorite authentic Mexican restaurant in Houston is… is Hugo’s. At the end of this article, I have placed the recipe for Chiles en Nogada, compliments of Hugo Ortega.  I offer it not so much for you to make, but for you to understand that this is not a plate of Tex-Mex enchiladas!  It can take a couple of days to make it correctly and it is typical of the attention to authenticity at Hugo’s.  If you want to make them, print the recipe out… put it on your refrigerator and wait a few months for pomegranates to come into your supermarket.

Hugo’s Regional Mexican Cuisine
1600 Westheimer
Houstn, Texas 77008

Recipe for Chiles en Nogada:

RECIPE: Chiles en Nogada
(serves 8)

12 ounces boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes

4 cups pork stock or water
3 tablespoons corn oil
2 roasted tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons chopped white onion
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 pound fresh peaches, large dice, skin on
1 pound fresh Washington Red apples, large dice, skin on
1 pound fresh Bosc pears, large dice, skin on
1 large ripe plantain, large dice, skinned
1/3 cup raisins, whole
1/3 cup sliced almonds, toasted
3 tablespoons sugar
8 large poblano peppers, carefully roasted, peeled and     seeded keeping stems attached
2 cups white flour for dredging pork
1 tablespoon salt for dredging pork mixture

Seeds of 2 ripe, fresh pomegranates for final garnish. (about 8-10 seeds on top of each pepper

For the pork mixture:

Simmer the meat in the stock or water over low heat until it is soft (approx. 2 hours).  Cool and shred it.  Set aside.  In a large saucepan, heat the corn oil and fry the tomatoes with the onion and garlic. Cook until the liquid evaporates.  Then add all the fruit, almonds, sugar and meat and cook together for about 10 minutes. Cool mixture. 

The peppers:

Stuff the prepared peppers with the pork mixture, being extra careful not to tear them.  When the sauce has been made and the peppers stuffed and ready to serve, dredge the peppers in flour seasoned with salt.

Walnut Sauce:

3 cups milk
4 cups of walnuts
½ cup Cinzano Sweet Vermouth
4 ounces queso anejo
4 ounces queso fresco
1 cup sugar

Blend all five ingredients together into a smooth sauce. Serve cold over finished chiles.

To serve:

Sauté the floured, stuffed peppers in corn oil and finish them in a 325-degree oven for 20 minutes, carefully turning them from time to time.  Arrange the 8 peppers on your serving platter.  Pour the cold walnut sauce over the peppers and garnish with the pomegranate seeds.  Serve with white rice if desired.

2 Comments on “Hugo’s Regional Mexican Cuisine… the Test and Taste of Authenticity

  1. Thanks for sharing this gem I didn't know about, Jack. I'll be trying it for sure.

    By the way, if you've ever had issues as a lone diner, I'd like some feedback from you, Jack. Please give my current post: Service and the Single Diner a read. I'm trying to get perspectives from several sides, do some research and a follow up on this topic.

    Thanks and again, great blog as always!


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