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Illegal Immigrants in the Restaurant Industry

Mexican immigrant Hugo Ortega went from washing dishes to owning Houston's best Mexican restaurant — now he has a few things to say about immigration

My tablemate dipped her doughnut into the cup of hot chocolate and purred while she chewed. "Is this the best thing you ever ate, or what?" she said. We were splitting an order of churros and hot chocolate, which the waiter recommended as the best dessert on the menu at Hugo's, the popular upscale Mexican restaurant on Westheimer.

A churro is a Mexican doughnut made by extruding dough through a nozzle into a deep fryer. The nozzle gives the long stick-shaped doughnut pronounced ridges, which trap the cinnamon and sugar topping. At Hugo's the kitchen doesn't fry the churros until they're ordered, so they're served piping hot. Hugo's also cuts them in three pieces, fills the inside with the caramel syrup called dulce de leche and serves them on a plate with a dainty scoop of mocha ice cream.

There are hundreds of Tex-Mex cantinas, authentic Mexican restaurants, taquerías, carnicerías, panaderías and taco trucks in Houston. But ever since it opened in 2002, Hugo's has been the best Mexican restaurant in the city. In the 2003 "Best of Houston" issue, the Houston Press named Hugo's Houston's "Best Restaurant," period.

Hugo Ortega
Daniel Kramer
Hugo Ortega
Hugo Ortega gets sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
Courtesy Hugo Ortega
Hugo Ortega gets sworn in as a U.S. citizen.

The restaurant roasts its own cocoa beans and grinds them by hand in an old-fashioned stone mill imported from Oaxaca. The fresh-ground cocoa powder is used to make its signature mole poblano, as well as the cup of hot chocolate that comes with the doughnuts.

The churros and hot chocolate at Hugo's are sensational. Churros are a common street food snack in Mexico City, which is fitting since Hugo Ortega, the owner and head chef, grew up in one of Mexico City's worst slums. Ortega entered the United States illegally, and like an enormous number of Mexican immigrants, he found work in the restaurant industry.

The restaurant industry is the nation's largest employer of immigrants, according to the National Restaurant Association, which estimates that 1.4 million restaurant workers in the United States are foreign-born immigrants. Seventy percent of them work in the lowest-paying jobs, as dishwashers, busboys, prep cooks and cleaning help.

The National Restaurant Association lobbies on behalf of restaurant owners, and predictably, it's one of the loudest proponents of immigration reform. "While the government claims stepped-up enforcement...will discourage future illegal immigration across our nation's borders," the NRA Web site says, "in reality, all they are doing is eliminating a sizeable portion of the workforce without providing any legal avenue to hire foreign-born workers to do jobs that Americans are no longer taking."

Meanwhile, anti-immigration groups such as U.S. Border Watch, which intimidates day laborers as they wait for employers to pick them up, remain active. "It makes me sad," Ortega says about a recent confrontation in northwest Harris County. "If immigrants are selling drugs or committing crimes, then put them in jail or send them back to Mexico. But please judge immigrants as individuals and for their contributions to society."

"You only hear one side of the immigration debate, because the people who really know what's going on can't say anything," one Houston restaurant owner told me. "If you own a restaurant and you speak out about immigration, you make your business a target."

There's a weird disconnect between perception and reality for those who work in the business. Thanks to media demagogues like Lou Dobbs, much of the American public is ready to "send 'em back to Mexico." Meanwhile, Spanish is what you're most likely to hear in a restaurant kitchen.

Author and TV star Anthony Bourdain is one of the few chefs who's been willing to speak frankly on the issue. He says the American restaurant industry would be in big trouble if all the illegal immigrants in this country were rounded up and deported. "The bald fact is that the entire restaurant industry in America would close down overnight, would never recover, if current immigration laws were enforced quickly and thoroughly across the board," Bourdain told me. "Everyone in the industry knows this. It is undeniable...I know very few chefs who've even heard of a U.S.-born citizen coming in the door to ask for a dishwasher, night clean-up or kitchen prep job. Until that happens, let's at least try to be honest when discussing this issue."
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The two roasted poblanos were stuffed with shredded pork shoulder that had been slowly braised with pears, peaches and raisins, and spices. I ate some of the filling with the spiciest part of the chile, the thick flesh around the stem. There was so much going on — the sweetness of the pork, the kick of the fiery green chile and the creaminess of the thick walnut sauce, sparked with the intense tartness of pomegranate seeds that burst as I chewed — it was a baroque fugue of flavors.

"I learned the secret of the walnut sauce from a lady in Puebla," Hugo says. The secret is to buy walnuts in September when they're still white inside and then soak them in milk until the bitter skins slip off easily.

Hugo's serves chiles en nogada through the fall or as long they can get fresh pomegranates. In the summer, the menu switches over to dishes made with squash blossoms. The restaurant also serves such exotica as huitlacoche (corn fungus) and sautéed chapulines (grasshoppers) when they're available.

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