Mexican, Straight Up
"Rock and roll is like Mexican food. As it improves in quality it stops being what it is," wrote Dave Hickey in The Village Voice in 1975. I recall the quote to my tablemates over dinner at Hugo's, the fancy new Mexican restaurant on Westheimer.
"Rock and roll is primitive music. It's about originality and exuberance, not content," shrugs Johnny Reno, a musician who once wrote songs with Hickey, who is now a famed art critic.
Reno isn't sure about the culinary side of the analogy. "It's a great quote," he laughs, "but I love the food anyway."
Reno is eating a duck mole sopesita and drinking Chinaco silver tequila straight up with a sangrita chaser. Sangrita is a bright red citrus and chile concoction that's served with tequila in interior Mexico. Sopes are saucer-sized corn tortilla dough boats fried to order and filled with refried beans, tomato and lettuce at homey Mexican restaurants. Hugo's sopesitas are smaller versions of the same thing, only they're served three to an order and crammed with sensational fillings: duck in mole poblano, chicken in tomatillo sauce, and pork in red salsa.
The restaurant is named for its chef and co-owner, Hugo Ortega, who grew up in Mexico City and started working at Houston's Backstreet Cafe as a busboy. After some culinary training, Ortega began working in Backstreet's kitchen, eventually rising to head chef. Before he opened this restaurant, he went back to Mexico and traveled around rediscovering his favorite dishes.
Hugo's Mexican food is among the best I've ever tasted. Chef Ortega's grasp of Mexican flavors is so confident, he feels free to innovate. And it's in his original interpretations that his considerable talents shine brightest. His roasted rabbit in guajillo sauce with yams and jicama salad seems like a cross between Mexican and American Southern cooking. His tacos al pastor with pineapple in crunchy pork almost taste Hawaiian.
Ortega also borrows freely from the greatest hits of other upscale Mexican restaurants in the United States. The sopesita appetizer, for instance, is similar to the three small sopes filled with chicken in mole, black beans and chorizo, and plantains with sour cream at Rick Bayless's Frontera Grill in Chicago. You don't eat sopes in a classy restaurant in Mexico City; such antojitos ("little whims") are the hamburgers and hot dogs of Mexican cuisine. It was American chefs like Bayless who first took these dishes from Mexico's "peasant cuisine" across class lines into a fine dining environment.
Like Bayless, Ortega takes humble dishes from the Mexican market stalls and dresses them up, Cinderella-style. Unfortunately, some trampy items, like carnitas and taquitos, end up looking like little more than overpriced taqueria refugees here. But others clean up quite well. Roasted cabrito meat is pulled from the bone and attractively wrapped in a banana leaf topped with habanero salsa and surrounded by guacamole and a salad of nopalitos. A gorgeous little Talavera cazuela crock is filled with a stew of slow-cooked pork, chayote squash, green beans and Italian white beans in a mole verde sauce.
Ortega gives exalted Mexican dishes like huachinango veracruzano his own spin, too. The whole red snapper comes with the usual veracruzano sauce of tomatoes and olives unexpectedly pureed into a deep red coulis. And the classic chile rellenos here are stuffed with untraditional chicken and cheese and topped with the wonderfully exotic pipian verde, a ground pumpkin seed sauce that often includes such greenery as radish leaves.
Chef Ortega is doing a fascinating balancing act between maintaining Mexican culinary integrity and charming the Houston fine dining audience. There's no doubt that what Hugo's is serving is a vast improvement over the average plate of rice and beans. So, was Hickey right? Is this Mexican food that's lost its mojo?
Reno's wife, writer-photographer Christina Patoski, who is happily drinking a shot of Herradura Añejo and eating plantain empanadas stuffed with refried beans, suggests that I consider the source of the rock and roll-Mexican food analogy. For God's sake, Dave Hickey may be a MacArthur "genius grant" recipient, but he did his undergraduate work at TCU in Fort Worth, she reminds me. "And he never was much of a gourmet."
"There's a prejudice in Texas: If it's not Tex-Mex, it's not Mexican food," smiles Reno. "Hey, nine out of ten Texans don't like the Mexican food in Mexico."
Authentic Mexican restaurants in Texas have a habit of opening strong and then going south. In 1972, an upscale Mexican restaurant called San Angel opened in Montrose right across the street from where Hugo's is now. Owners Tom Gilliland and Miguel Ravago hired Diana Kennedy, who had just published her first cookbook, The Cuisines of Mexico, to be their menu consultant. It was Kennedy who first drew the line between Mexican food and Tex-Mex, a distinction that we Texans are still struggling with 30 years later. Kennedy believed that once the Houston public tasted real Mexican cooking, they would never go back to the combination plates. She was wrong, of course. After three years of moderate success, the city's first interior Mexican restaurant closed its doors.
San Angel's owners relocated to a larger space in Austin and opened Fonda San Miguel, now the oldest upscale Mexican restaurant in the state. But survival required some compromises. "We started out to be really purist; we wanted everything to be just like in Mexico," Gilliland tells me on the phone. "Diana made us commit to not serving chips and salsa, not only because it's not done in Mexico, but because the chips fill you up, and the hot sauce dulls your palate." But Texans rebelled. Chips and hot sauce, and later nachos, were added to the menu. "Texans have this fixation about chips and salsa," Gilliland fumes. "We had customers saying that unless we gave them chips and salsa, they weren't coming back. So we finally gave up and gave them their damn chips and hot sauce. We just didn't tell Diana right away."
Ravago went on to become the chef at another upscale Mexican restaurant called Bertram's, where he refused to make any compromises. At $16.95, Bertram's duck enchiladas were the most expensive enchiladas in Austin in 1998. The critics loved them. Austin Chronicle restaurant reviewer Meredith Phillips wrote that "along with the satisfaction of a well-filled stomach, I left [Bertram's] with a feeling of satisfaction about Austin, a city that can support an eating experience of such a high level, both of quality and culture." Within a few months, Bertram's was out of business.
Why has it always been such a challenge to run an upscale Mexican restaurant here? "In Texas and Oklahoma, going out for Mexican food is like going out for a hamburger," Bayless, who grew up in Oklahoma City, once told me over lunch. "There's an old tradition of inexpensive Mexican food, and that's what you expect. The reason that this Mexican fine dining style became a trend in Chicago is that Chicago had no Mexican food tradition. People didn't have any preconceived notions."
Texans had been calling tacos and refried beans Mexican food for over a hundred years when Diana Kennedy drew her Tex-Mex line in the sand. In fact, many Tex-Mex restaurants still insist they're serving authentic Mexican food. And in 1975, when Hickey wrote his review, only a few food snobs recognized the distinction.
"When I said 'Mexican food,' I meant Tex-Mex," the professor of art theory and criticism at the University of Nevada explains over the phone. Hickey isn't much of a fan of authentic Mexican food. "My commitment is to Tex-Mex," he rails, "which I define as the absence of fucking vegetables."
Now it all makes sense. Hickey was saying that Tex-Mex is a primitive cuisine, just like rock and roll is a primitive music, and that when they improve, they cease to be primitive. Nothing to argue with there. The politically incorrect nuances of Hickey's insight are a result of the new definitions the term "Mexican food" has acquired in the years since he wrote his review.
Even if you think you understand what Mexican food means now, you're probably wrong. Hugo's is serving authentic Mexican cuisine as opposed to Tex-Mex, right? Well, not exactly. When the restaurant first opened back in July, I called Ortega to ask how he defined his Mexican food (see "That Sneaky Tex-Mex Camel," July 25). Ortega said his cooking wasn't really authentic Mexican. "I am doing original Mexican food," he said. "We can't get things from Mexico, so this is Mexican food made with ingredients of the United States."
I also asking Ortega what he was going to do when Houstonians started asked for fajitas and nachos. "There are 500 restaurants serving Tex-Mex in Houston," Ortega said. "Why in the name of God should I serve fajitas and nachos when there are hundreds of other restaurants doing that?"
"So do you think you can stick to this menu and not make compromises?" I wondered.
"If I didn't feel I could keep it honest, I wouldn't have opened this restaurant," he said. "I think the Houston dining public is ready for the kind of food I'm doing."
Apparently he's right. His restaurant is usually packed. But given my previous experiences with the authentic Mexican genre, I waited six months before reviewing Hugo's. I wanted to see if chips and salsa started creeping out onto the tables. None so far. No nachos or fajitas, either. To tell the truth, over the six months I waited for the place to slip, the quality of the food just kept getting better.
Hugo's is a spectacular, honest-to-God, upscale Mexican restaurant that's surviving in Tex-Mex country on its own terms. Times they have a-changed.
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