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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.
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."
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.
The chiles en nogada at Hugo's are the best I have ever eaten — even better than the supposedly definitive version I once sampled at Osteria San Domingo in Mexico City.
The dish is associated with Mexican patriotism. The green chiles, white walnut sauce and red dots of pomegranate garnish are traditionally arranged in the order of the colors of the Mexican flag. Chiles en nogada were created by the nuns of the Santa Monica convent of Puebla in 1821 to commemorate the arrival of Agustín de Iturbide, architect of Mexican independence. Iturbide's celebrity was short-lived; he was crowned emperor in 1822, deposed in 1823 and executed in 1824. So maybe the fiery chiles en nogada should also be considered symbolic of the cruel fate that befalls so many Mexicans.
It's hard to picture the soft-spoken, slender and genteel-in-his-chef's-whites Ortega climbing over a barbed-wire fence with the Border Patrol in pursuit. Like so many others, he crossed the border for little more than the promise of washing dishes and busing tables.
"My teen years were pretty awful," he says, remembering his struggle to take care of seven brothers and sisters and his decision to cross the border. "My dad was beating my mom and me. He hardly ever came home. When I was 15, I quit school and started working for Procter & Gamble in Mexico City loading boxes of soap into cartons on an assembly line. My family was going hungry. I was buying rice and beans, but that was it. There was never enough. Then my mom had twins and got sick. I was raising the kids and working. It was a bad deal."
Ortega couldn't earn enough to live, no matter how hard he was willing to work. Hope arrived in the form of a letter from a cousin named Pedro (not his real name) who had made it to Houston.
Pedro wrote about the terrible journey. The van he was riding in blew up. He had to walk across the desert with nothing but a couple of tacos to eat. But he made it. He was living in a shotgun shack between Taft and Montrose. "He said he was making $200 a week," Hugo remembers. That sounded like a lot of money."
"I was young. I wanted to do something with my life. And I wanted to help my mom and my family," he says. "What would you do?"
In April of 1983, at the age of 17, Ortega decided to go to the United States. "My mom was very sad and very concerned when I left. When I quit my job at Procter & Gamble, I got 200 pesos in back pay, which was less than $20. I bought a bus ticket to Juárez with the money."
Ortega arrived in Juárez along with an older cousin, who was 23, and three other friends. A coyote met them as soon as they got off the bus and asked if they were going across. "You have to give him a phone number of somebody in the U.S. If you don't have a phone number, they won't cross you. My cousin and I gave him Pedro's number in Houston. Pedro had to agree to pay $500 for each for us. He really stepped up to the plate."
For five days, Hugo and his group stayed in a junkyard in Juárez, sleeping in wrecked cars and eating potatoes and eggs. On the fifth day, they attempted to cross the border.
"We had to inflate a plastic boat by blowing into it. There were 35 people including little kids and fat ladies who could barely walk. We took turns going across in the boat. I was scared to death because I couldn't swim. The mosquitoes [helicopters] came with their lights, and we tried to hide in the bushes. The coyote cut a barbed wire fence, and we ran. We got to a road. It was perfectly smooth, with no potholes. I thought, 'Wow, what an amazing country.' We got caught by the Border Patrol. They tied up our hands and put us in a van, took us to the bridge and sent us back across the border. We crossed again three more times, but we kept getting caught."
'The fifth time, we all split up, and the young guys who could run fast went by themselves. We crossed two fences and got to the railroad tracks where we were supposed to wait. Someone opened the door of a railroad car and then they locked us and two coyotes in there. The coyotes told us if we coughed or made a noise, they would kill us. I believed them."
"They had a special seal so that the customs people wouldn't open the rail car. We were in there for three hours before the train moved. After awhile, we could barely breathe. We took turns putting our faces up to a crack in the floor to get air."
"When we got close to San Antonio, the coyotes had to hack through the railcar's wooden wall with a pickax so they could get the door open. One of the coyotes cut his hand open, so there was blood everywhere. We had to jump out while the train was still moving. Finally we got to a house in San Antonio. People were talking, and it was half English and half Spanish. That was the first time I ever heard English.
"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."
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.
To go with my steak, the waiter recommended a glass of 2005 Tikal "Patriota" wine, a Malbec-Bonarda blend from Argentina. It was a big, bold red that stood up brilliantly to the dried chile sauce.
My dining companion tried another entrée from the list of specials, a thick salmon steak cooked rare in the middle and balanced on a bed of mashed Peruvian purple potatoes. The fish was garnished with mussels, and a disk of corn pudding was served on the side.
This isn't traditional regional Mexican cuisine, and it isn't supposed to be. This is modern American cuisine with a Latino spin, and it speaks well of Hugo Ortega's culinary training. "The dinner specials are different, more innovative," he says. "I learned French techniques in cooking school, and I apply them to Mexican cooking."
Hugo Ortega was issued a Temporary Resident (green) card in April of 1988 under the "Reagan Amnesty." With the help of Tracy Vaught, he enrolled in the culinary arts program at Houston Community College. He graduated in 1992 and worked as chef and executive chef at Backstreet Café and Prego before opening Hugo's in 2002. He has made two guest chef appearances at the James Beard House in New York City.
And there are a lot more Hugo Ortegas on the way, thanks to philanthropists like Kit Goldsbury, heir to the Pace Picante Sauce fortune. Last year, Goldsbury contributed $35 million to a small San Antonio cooking school called the Center for Foods of the Americas. His goal was to create a top-rank culinary academy specifically for young Latinos.
The nation's foremost culinary school, the Culinary Institute of America, became a partner in the project. The San Antonio cooking school is now known as the Culinary Institute of America's Center for Foods of the Americas. It will offer extensive financial aid to struggling Hispanic students and, for the most talented, a chance to transfer to the CIA's prestigious main campus in Hyde Park, New York.
Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught were married in 1994, and in February 1997 they had their first child, Sophia Elizabeth. Ortega became a naturalized American citizen in 1996. As a citizen, Hugo was entitled to bring members of his family to the United States. "I think I am more patriotic than most Americans," he says. "I love this country like my mother. When I hear the national anthem of the United States, it sometimes makes me cry."
His mother and father live in South Houston, and all of his siblings have joined Hugo here as well. Alma works for Mary Kay selling cosmetics. (One day she hopes to own a pink Cadillac.) Ruben is a pastry chef at Backstreet Café and Hugo's. Sandra works as an administrative assistant during the day and at a local restaurant at night. Rene, a graduate of Reagan High School, works as a mechanic for Admiral Linen Company. Twins Gloriela and Veronica now sell real estate in the Heights. And Jose Luis, who worked in the kitchen with Hugo, recently moved from Houston to Belize to become the chef at The Victoria House.
Hugo's nephew Antonio will graduate from South Houston High School in May of 2008. Tony has received scholarship offers from Harvard, Yale and Rice, among others. It's a difficult decision. But because he doesn't want to be too far away from his family, he's leaning toward Rice.
Hugo is working on a cookbook that will combine old family recipes from Mexico and innovative dishes he created in Texas.