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Planet Houston

The world's great cuisines converge here.

It was difficult to find work and difficult to find food from back home, as Ortega came to discover. Washing dishes in restaurants across the city, not only could he not find the rich interior Mexican food he so desperately missed, he couldn't afford it anyway. "I ate a lot of Kentucky Fried Chicken and coleslaw," he laughs. The fried chicken reminded him vaguely of the rotisserie-style chicken with crisp, buttery skin that he longed for from back home.

"Whenever we did have Mexican food, it was always at someone's house," he recalls. "We would make things that we loved from back home, like tamales or posole at Christmas." In time, though, Ortega began to explore the burgeoning interior Mexican food scene in Houston at the same time as he began dating Tracy Vaught, now his wife and co-owner of Hugo's (1602 Westheimer, 713-524-7744) and Backstreet Cafe. "Tracy took me to places like Pico's (5941 Bellaire, 713-662-8383), and we became regulars."

When the couple decided to open a second restaurant after the success of Backstreet Cafe, Vaught suggested to Ortega that he cook the food of his homeland. "I was paralyzed!" he says, laughing. "I have so much respect for this cuisine that I love so much, that it was frightening to think of." These days, Ortega has overcome that fear to much acclaim and is able more than ever to find authentic Mexican ingredients in Houston that were so hard to come by when he first arrived.

The cuisine at Sushi Miyagi is prepared by a 30-year veteran from Okinawa.
Troy Fields
The cuisine at Sushi Miyagi is prepared by a 30-year veteran from Okinawa.
Kaiser Lashkari serves fragrant Pakistani food at Himalaya.
Troy Fields
Kaiser Lashkari serves fragrant Pakistani food at Himalaya.

"It's much better now than it was 20 years ago," Ortega says. He's able to purchase things at Canino's (2520 Airline, 713-862-4027) and in the stalls behind the market that he would have had to import back then. And although he still brings in items like dried peppers, cinnamon and cacao from a friend in Oaxaca — elements that are crucial to the Pueblan-style mole Hugo's makes in-house — Ortega is happy with the way Houston has been transformed over the years into a world marketplace, with something for everybody.

Those people selling food from the stalls behind Canino's aren't just Mexican, of course. People from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are equally likely to do their buying and selling at the giant open-air market. For those from Honduras, purchases lean toward more tropical items, as the country's cuisine has much more emphasis on fruits and coconut milk than any other in the region. Sopa de caracol — a sweet, creamy seafood soup with a coconut milk base — is perhaps one of the most unique and representative dishes of the country, one that shouldn't be missed among the other delicious items at Honduras Maya (5945 Bellaire, 713-668-5002).

Salvadoran cuisine holds the pupusa in high regard. This marvel of simplicity is solid evidence that pocket-based foods truly are present in every culture. Get your fill of pupusas — extra-thick corn tortillas that encase cheese and other fillings, eaten with a pickled cabbage relish on the side — at places like the all-you-can-eat Pupusa Buffet (5920 Bellaire, 713-218-6666) just down the street from Honduras Maya. It's a dangerous stretch of road for those with insatiable appetites for good Central American food; wear comfortable pants.

Comfort reigns supreme in the cozy dining room at Tex-Chick (712 Fairview, 713-528-4708) in Montrose, which is currently the only Puerto Rican restaurant in town. Carlos Pérez, the current owner of the restaurant that's served mofongo and juicy bistec empanizado since the early 1980s, has a simple explanation as to why: "There aren't as many Puerto Ricans in Houston," he says. "And we mix so well with others!"

Successive waves of colonization on the Caribbean island over the centuries mean that the food itself is as multiethnic as the people, Chinese intertwining with native influences, West African with Portuguese. (See Best of Houston®, "Dishes and Drinks," page 115).

And although he's occasionally homesick for San Juan, his hometown, the lack of Puerto Rican food in Houston doesn't trouble him. Aside from the fact that his kitchen can cook up pollo guisado any time he wants it, he points out that Puerto Ricans are more relaxed in their attitude toward food. "Mexicans want to eat Mexican food all the time," he laughs. "We'll eat anything."

Spoken like a true Houstonian.

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com

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