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

"They had taken the seats out of a green Impala and put blocks on the shocks. They crammed 13 people into that car. I was one of five guys in the trunk. We drove to Houston and stayed in a house until Pedro came to get us. We were so dirty and skinny, he didn't recognize us.

"I hated Houston at first. It seemed like a ghost town after Mexico City. There was nothing going on in the streets, no music, no soccer, nothing," Ortega remembers.

He took a job cleaning offices. When his cousins decided to try their luck in California, he stayed in Houston so he could keep his job. But the company he was working for relocated, and Hugo found himself unemployed and homeless. "I was broke and sleeping outside on Dunlavy Street behind where the Fiesta is now. I was really depressed."

Hugo plates food with his kitchen staff.
Daniel Kramer
Hugo plates food with his kitchen staff.
Ortega's kitchen staff...
Photos by Daniel Kramer
Ortega's kitchen staff...

Ortega's culinary career began by chance. Some fellow immigrants he met playing soccer offered to take him to Backstreet Café off Shepherd where they worked so he could apply for a job. Owner Tracy Vaught was impressed with Hugo's attitude and industriousness from the first day. At Backstreet, Hugo slowly worked his way up from busboy to prep cook to line cook.

Ortega says the restaurant didn't know he was illegal. "I gave them a Social Security number," he says.

Soon after they arrive, illegal immigrants buy fake IDs and Social Security cards at flea markets or on the street. As a result, of course, they're paying income tax and Social Security — and never see income tax refunds or Social Security ­benefits.

But Ortega says this didn't bother him. "I didn't care," he says. "I was just happy to be able to work."

The dark brown sauce that cloaked the chicken leg quarter was dotted with sesame seeds. The version of mole poblano served at Hugo's was velvet on the tongue. The incredibly smooth texture married the rich taste of dried chiles, fresh-ground cocoa powder, toasted sesame seeds, aromatic almonds and other nutty flavors. But there was a deeper wave of flavor in this version of mole poblano, a wonderfully complex fruitiness and a shining high note of tartness that I'd never encountered before.

"Very few restaurants in Puebla serve mole poblano," Hugo Ortega says. "Because everybody's grandmother makes it better."

Ortega's mole has unusual fruit flavors. "That's the raisins and the plantains you're tasting," Hugo says. I have made a lot of moles from recipes in Mexican cookbooks, but I have never seen a mole poblano recipe that called for plantains.

American foodies make the mistake of thinking that reading Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless's cookbooks is all it takes to master Mexican cuisine. Cookbooks only skim the surface. Native chefs like Ortega are a reminder of how deep Mexico's culinary traditions really go.

The Ortega family has mole in their blood. A relative of Hugo's makes the mole at the restaurant. "She learned from her mother, who learned from her mother and so on. [Her] mole poblano is fourth-­generation. You should taste the mole that my grandmother makes back in Puebla," Hugo says with a grin.

Hugo Ortega's favorite childhood memories are of his days in Progreso in the state of Puebla. His family moved back to their ancestral village when his father became too sick to work. This period came before his father began abusing his family. Hugo was nine years old when he arrived in Progreso. He was sent to the mountains with a herd of goats to tend.

"I was scared to death at first," he remembers. But he learned how to herd goats and was happy in the country. In Puebla, he learned about Mexican cooking traditions from his grandmother. Some days he would help his aunt, who was the village baker. Other times he would assist his uncle, who lived in the mountains and made cheese.

But Ortega's childhood in the country came to an end when his father recovered and moved the family back to the slums of Mexico City.

Hugo's maternal grandmother remained in Progreso. There, she's the member of an informal club, a group of around a dozen women who travel around the countryside cooking dishes like mole poblano for weddings and other ­celebrations.

Hugo recently returned to Progreso to attend a family wedding. He was shocked by what he saw. "There's only women and children left in the village. All the men and boys are in the United States. It's like that all over Mexico. Things are different. The younger generation isn't picking up the old traditions. Where are the women who will go from village to village cooking mole for weddings after my grandmother and her friends are gone? I am afraid that Mexico's culinary culture is going to disappear."

On my most recent visit to Hugo's, I sampled one of the nightly specials, a ­mesquite-grilled black Angus tenderloin. The steak was medium-rare and nicely charred around the edges. It sat in a luscious puddle of guajillo sauce. The rich dried-chile flavor was rounded off with butter and garlic. On the side, two mole tamales and some grilled asparagus spears sat on a bed of sautéed spinach leaves.

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