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"No," he said proudly, "ours is different from all the rest. It's our best-selling item!"
What's different about it, I asked.
"The others have too many walnuts," he said.
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
Otilia's, of course, has every right to make the dish anyway it sees fit. And if unseasoned fillings and nut-deficient cream gravy are ideally suited to the restaurant's mainly Anglo clientele -- well surprise, surprise. So spare me the authenticity rap. Lots of restaurants list interior Mexican plates on their menus. This one just happens to get a lot of press for it.
In a previous article ("The Authenticity Myth," October 26, 2000), I argued that Mexican restaurants in Houston have been promising us "authentic Mexican food" for nearly 100 years, but what they really deliver is a regional Texan variation.
"Not Otilia's!" shrieked my foodie friends. "It's really authentic!" Otilia's walls are decorated with some of the 26 stories that have been written about the place, including articles from this paper (see "No Tex-Mex!" by Alison Cook, July 13, 1995), Texas Monthly, Spirit (the Southwest Airlines magazine), the Houston Chronicle and others. The media have taken little interest in other Mexican eateries on Long Point.
You can blame it partly on pack journalism. But food lover Jay Francis (see "Ethnic Explorer," August 3, 2000) takes much of the credit for Otilia's fame. Francis loved the food there, and shortly after it opened he became friendly with the owners. "I really liked them, and I wanted them to succeed," he says. "So I went on a letter-writing campaign." Food critics got letters from Francis; in them, he described Otilia's as an "undiscovered gem" that serves "authentic Mexican food." About two months later the reviews began to appear.
I asked Jay Francis to join me for dinner at El Hidalguense one night last month. "Hidalguense" means something or someone from Hidalgo, a city in the Huatecan region just south of Mexico City. The restaurant's open kitchen is dominated by a waist-high brick structure with a griddle on one side where the tortillas are cooked, a charcoal grill on other side where the goat is prepared, and a stainless-steel cauldron in which the barbacoa is simmered. On the night we were there, the cook lifted the lid and showed us how he did the barbacoa. At the bottom of the cauldron was a broth in which giant maguey leaves stuffed with lamb are partially submerged. I had read about this technique before, but this was the first time I had seen it up close.
The barbacoa dinner began with a bowl of the lamb broth, to which onions, chiles and garbanzo beans were added. Francis got a bowl of charro beans with his order. El Hidalguense didn't have the chivito al pastor, so instead it served kid goat cooked in chile sauce. The tender goat meat was brick-red and still on the bone. It made for a stunningly spicy meat taco topped with the chopped onions, cilantro and limes.
Then came my huge serving of steaming lamb barbacoa, as soft and stringy as a pot roast, presented on a piece of the maguey leaf with lettuce and tomatoes on the side. I piled lamb meat on a handmade flour tortilla and sprinkled it with onions, the chocolate-colored hot sauce and cilantro. Then I drizzled a spoonful of broth over the top to keep it juicy. It was the sort of taco that makes you bow down over your plate in complete surrender.
"Well," I asked Francis, "isn't this as authentic as Otilia's?"
"Yeah," he admitted.
"So would you have gone on a letter-writing campaign about this place?" I asked.
"No," he said, "because I don't like goat and mutton. Not to say it isn't authentic."
"And because you knew gringos wouldn't get it. The goat and mutton aroma, nobody speaks English -- don't you see some xenophobia at work here?" I asked Francis.
"But I still think Otilia's is very authentic," he said.
"The chile en nogada is completely Americanized," I argued.
"Yeah, but I've had the chile en nogada at San Domingo in Mexico City, and I didn't really like it," he said.
"Great, we're in agreement," I responded. "Americans don't want real chile en nogada, and that's why Otilia's serves Americanized Mexican food."
"Wait a minute," Francis said. "If you were a Mexican chef and you opened a Mexican restaurant in Holland and you made cheese enchiladas with Gouda cheese, does that mean they couldn't be authentic Mexican?"
"No, they wouldn't be authentic, but they would taste good -- especially to Dutch people, and that's what I'm trying to say."
Otilia's is a lovely restaurant, and it's doing a wonderful job of bringing a good approximation of interior Mexican food to a non-Mexican audience. But articles that single it out for serving "authentic Mexican" food seem laughably Anglocentric, considering there's a real Hidalgo-style barbacoa pit right down the street. How many of those are there in the United States?
El Hidalguense will never get famous, because it doesn't cater to gringos, and the operators don't care. They are more concerned with providing people from their part of Mexico a place to eat barbacoa de estilo Hidalgo, listen to Huatecan music on the weekends and hang out with their homies. Others may turn up their noses at the funky aromas, but I'll take a place like this over Otilia's any day.