Best Restaurant (2003)
Houston is a Mexican food town. And Hugo's Mexican food is among the best in the nation. Rick Bayless in Chicago and Zarela Martinez in New York are chef Hugo Ortega's main competitors -- few others come close. As a native of Puebla who received his culinary training here, Ortega has a big advantage. His grasp of Mexican flavors is so confident that he doesn't feel the need to prove himself all the time. While others slavishly imitate out-of-date Mexican culinary concepts in the name of authenticity, Ortega cuts loose with new American abandon. His roasted rabbit in guajillo sauce with yams and jicama salad seems like a cross between Mexican and American Southern cooking. The tacos al pastor have so much pineapple mixed in with the crunchy pork, they taste Hawaiian. Meanwhile, there's no chips and salsa on the table, no fajitas on the grill, and no compromising to our usual Tex-Mex expectations. It's a brilliant balancing act: Ortega is upholding Mexican culinary integrity and charming the Houston fine dining audience at the same time. If you're looking for a restaurant that will blow away your food snob friends from New York or California, this is the place.