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When you walk in the front door of El Hidalguense, the scent of mutton commands your attention. Or is it goat? The restaurant's specialties are barbacoa de borrego estilo Hidalgo (Hidalgo-style lamb "barbecued" in maguey leaves) and chivito asado al pastor (charcoal-roasted goat).
6917 Long Point
Houston, TX 77055
Region: Outer Loop - NW
Barbacoa de borrego estilo Hidalgo (half-pound): $8.99; (pound): $16.99 Chivito asado al pastor: $12.99
Eight homemade tortillas: $1.50
Whether it's sheep or goat or both, there's always a pungent aroma in the air. There are seven tables occupied at the moment -- all by Latinos -- two couples, two large families with kids, and three tables of workmen in jeans and boots. A Mexican talk show blares from the TV.
They don't serve the standard Tex-Mex chips and salsa here. But they do bring you a bowl of deep brown hot sauce, made from a combination of hot and mild dried chiles with onion and vinegar, to put on your food. For lunch, I order a fabulously decadent dish, something El Hidalguense calls tulancigueñas. What comes to the table looks like three thick flautas. Inside the fried tortilla rolls are several slices of ham folded around a lot of jalapeños and a little mayonnaise. After being deep-fried, the rolls are sprinkled with cheese and topped with cold avocado slices.
When you bite into one of these taco tubes, the juice -- let's not call it grease -- practically squirts out the other end. I didn't really mean to order tulancigueñas. Actually, I wasn't planning on eating here at all; I had just eaten lunch up the street at Otilia's, which Zagat has rated as the top Mexican restaurant in Houston for two years running. Otilia's likes to boast that it's "100% Mexican, No Tex-Mex!" But the place serves chips with a salsa as meek as gazpacho, and its chile en nogada comes in a cream gravy that seems to belong on a chicken-fried steak. I didn't finish it. And now I'm hungry again. So I couldn't resist the urge for jalapeño-and-ham tacos.
At El Hidalguense, they don't make any claims about authenticity.
Have you even been to an authentic American restaurant? I have, and it's quite an illuminating experience. In 1994 I visited the Texas Cafe on Rue de la Sagesse in the French city of Périgueux. The appetizer menu featured buffalo wings, guacamole, New England soup (clam chowder) and tuna fish salad. The entrées included Long Island shrimp (in whisky tomato sauce), Mississippi chicken (sautéed with bourbon and orange), Texas nuggets (pan-fried chicken bits), chili (boeuf mijoté aux haricots rouges), barbecue ribs and a bunch of steaks. Americans may not recognize some of these dishes. The French feel free to interpret our cuisine however they choose.
But what do you say when a Frenchman asks, "Is this authentic American food?"
I have been to many "interior Mexican" restaurants like Otilia's; they remind me of the Texas Cafe. The menu reads like Mexico's greatest hits: There's cochinita pibil from the Yucatán, arracheras from Nuevo Leon, potosinos from San Luis, and chile en nogada from Puebla. But the menu also expresses some odd notions. Take, for instance, the explanation that begins, "Mole is dark gravy with chocolate, peanuts and spices " Otilia's may be preparing dishes from many parts of Mexico, but it obviously has its own regional bias. Six out of seven moles in Oaxaca are made without chocolate; same goes for almond mole, mole de hoja santa and guacamole. There are lots of moles in Mexico -- mole poblano, the one with the chocolate, peanuts and spices, is only one of them.
For lunch, I tried Otilia's signature dish, chile en nogada. There are all kinds of stuffed peppers in Mexico, but chile en nogada is something in particular, "one of the most famous dishes in Mexico," says Diana Kennedy in The Cuisines of Mexico.
According to legend, it was first served on August 28, 1821, at a banquet for Don Agustin de Iturbide, the newly proclaimed emperor of Mexico. The dish features a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with fruity, highly spiced pork picadilloserved in a walnut sauce and garnished with red pomegranate seeds. The white sauce, green chile and red seeds represent the three colors of the Mexican flag.
Otilia's version of chile en nogada is a roasted poblano stuffed with your choice of beef, chicken or cheese in cream gravy with about a half-teaspoon of ground walnuts and no pomegranates -- or any other red things on top. Since the authentic picadillo isn't even offered, I ordered the chicken. The meat was boiled and seemed to be unseasoned. The cream sauce had some tomato and cilantro in it, but little, if any, walnuts. The dish bore no resemblance to the ones I've had at restaurants in Mexico such as Osteria San Domingo in Mexico City, which is widely considered to serve the definitive version.
When the co-owner, Otilia's husband, stopped by my table to ask if everything was all right, I asked him if he had ever eaten the chile en nogada at Osteria San Domingo. Yes, he said, but he didn't like it. Had he ever seen or tasted a chile en nogada anywhere in Mexico that resembles the one on my plate, I wanted to know.