The Aroma of Authenticity
When you walk in the front door of El Hidalguense, the scent of mutton commands your attention. Or is it goat? The restaurant's specialties are barbacoa de borrego estilo Hidalgo (Hidalgo-style lamb "barbecued" in maguey leaves) and chivito asado al pastor (charcoal-roasted goat).
Whether it's sheep or goat or both, there's always a pungent aroma in the air. There are seven tables occupied at the moment -- all by Latinos -- two couples, two large families with kids, and three tables of workmen in jeans and boots. A Mexican talk show blares from the TV.
They don't serve the standard Tex-Mex chips and salsa here. But they do bring you a bowl of deep brown hot sauce, made from a combination of hot and mild dried chiles with onion and vinegar, to put on your food. For lunch, I order a fabulously decadent dish, something El Hidalguense calls tulancigueñas. What comes to the table looks like three thick flautas. Inside the fried tortilla rolls are several slices of ham folded around a lot of jalapeños and a little mayonnaise. After being deep-fried, the rolls are sprinkled with cheese and topped with cold avocado slices.
When you bite into one of these taco tubes, the juice -- let's not call it grease -- practically squirts out the other end. I didn't really mean to order tulancigueñas. Actually, I wasn't planning on eating here at all; I had just eaten lunch up the street at Otilia's, which Zagat has rated as the top Mexican restaurant in Houston for two years running. Otilia's likes to boast that it's "100% Mexican, No Tex-Mex!" But the place serves chips with a salsa as meek as gazpacho, and its chile en nogada comes in a cream gravy that seems to belong on a chicken-fried steak. I didn't finish it. And now I'm hungry again. So I couldn't resist the urge for jalapeño-and-ham tacos.
At El Hidalguense, they don't make any claims about authenticity.
Have you even been to an authentic American restaurant? I have, and it's quite an illuminating experience. In 1994 I visited the Texas Cafe on Rue de la Sagesse in the French city of Périgueux. The appetizer menu featured buffalo wings, guacamole, New England soup (clam chowder) and tuna fish salad. The entrées included Long Island shrimp (in whisky tomato sauce), Mississippi chicken (sautéed with bourbon and orange), Texas nuggets (pan-fried chicken bits), chili (boeuf mijoté aux haricots rouges), barbecue ribs and a bunch of steaks. Americans may not recognize some of these dishes. The French feel free to interpret our cuisine however they choose.
But what do you say when a Frenchman asks, "Is this authentic American food?"
I have been to many "interior Mexican" restaurants like Otilia's; they remind me of the Texas Cafe. The menu reads like Mexico's greatest hits: There's cochinita pibil from the Yucatán, arracheras from Nuevo Leon, potosinos from San Luis, and chile en nogada from Puebla. But the menu also expresses some odd notions. Take, for instance, the explanation that begins, "Mole is dark gravy with chocolate, peanuts and spices " Otilia's may be preparing dishes from many parts of Mexico, but it obviously has its own regional bias. Six out of seven moles in Oaxaca are made without chocolate; same goes for almond mole, mole de hoja santa and guacamole. There are lots of moles in Mexico -- mole poblano, the one with the chocolate, peanuts and spices, is only one of them.
For lunch, I tried Otilia's signature dish, chile en nogada. There are all kinds of stuffed peppers in Mexico, but chile en nogada is something in particular, "one of the most famous dishes in Mexico," says Diana Kennedy in The Cuisines of Mexico.
According to legend, it was first served on August 28, 1821, at a banquet for Don Agustin de Iturbide, the newly proclaimed emperor of Mexico. The dish features a roasted poblano pepper stuffed with fruity, highly spiced pork picadillo served in a walnut sauce and garnished with red pomegranate seeds. The white sauce, green chile and red seeds represent the three colors of the Mexican flag.
Otilia's version of chile en nogada is a roasted poblano stuffed with your choice of beef, chicken or cheese in cream gravy with about a half-teaspoon of ground walnuts and no pomegranates -- or any other red things on top. Since the authentic picadillo isn't even offered, I ordered the chicken. The meat was boiled and seemed to be unseasoned. The cream sauce had some tomato and cilantro in it, but little, if any, walnuts. The dish bore no resemblance to the ones I've had at restaurants in Mexico such as Osteria San Domingo in Mexico City, which is widely considered to serve the definitive version.
When the co-owner, Otilia's husband, stopped by my table to ask if everything was all right, I asked him if he had ever eaten the chile en nogada at Osteria San Domingo. Yes, he said, but he didn't like it. Had he ever seen or tasted a chile en nogada anywhere in Mexico that resembles the one on my plate, I wanted to know.
"No," he said proudly, "ours is different from all the rest. It's our best-selling item!"
What's different about it, I asked.
"The others have too many walnuts," he said.
Otilia's, of course, has every right to make the dish anyway it sees fit. And if unseasoned fillings and nut-deficient cream gravy are ideally suited to the restaurant's mainly Anglo clientele -- well surprise, surprise. So spare me the authenticity rap. Lots of restaurants list interior Mexican plates on their menus. This one just happens to get a lot of press for it.
In a previous article ("The Authenticity Myth," October 26, 2000), I argued that Mexican restaurants in Houston have been promising us "authentic Mexican food" for nearly 100 years, but what they really deliver is a regional Texan variation.
"Not Otilia's!" shrieked my foodie friends. "It's really authentic!" Otilia's walls are decorated with some of the 26 stories that have been written about the place, including articles from this paper (see "No Tex-Mex!" by Alison Cook, July 13, 1995), Texas Monthly, Spirit (the Southwest Airlines magazine), the Houston Chronicle and others. The media have taken little interest in other Mexican eateries on Long Point.
You can blame it partly on pack journalism. But food lover Jay Francis (see "Ethnic Explorer," August 3, 2000) takes much of the credit for Otilia's fame. Francis loved the food there, and shortly after it opened he became friendly with the owners. "I really liked them, and I wanted them to succeed," he says. "So I went on a letter-writing campaign." Food critics got letters from Francis; in them, he described Otilia's as an "undiscovered gem" that serves "authentic Mexican food." About two months later the reviews began to appear.
I asked Jay Francis to join me for dinner at El Hidalguense one night last month. "Hidalguense" means something or someone from Hidalgo, a city in the Huatecan region just south of Mexico City. The restaurant's open kitchen is dominated by a waist-high brick structure with a griddle on one side where the tortillas are cooked, a charcoal grill on other side where the goat is prepared, and a stainless-steel cauldron in which the barbacoa is simmered. On the night we were there, the cook lifted the lid and showed us how he did the barbacoa. At the bottom of the cauldron was a broth in which giant maguey leaves stuffed with lamb are partially submerged. I had read about this technique before, but this was the first time I had seen it up close.
The barbacoa dinner began with a bowl of the lamb broth, to which onions, chiles and garbanzo beans were added. Francis got a bowl of charro beans with his order. El Hidalguense didn't have the chivito al pastor, so instead it served kid goat cooked in chile sauce. The tender goat meat was brick-red and still on the bone. It made for a stunningly spicy meat taco topped with the chopped onions, cilantro and limes.
Then came my huge serving of steaming lamb barbacoa, as soft and stringy as a pot roast, presented on a piece of the maguey leaf with lettuce and tomatoes on the side. I piled lamb meat on a handmade flour tortilla and sprinkled it with onions, the chocolate-colored hot sauce and cilantro. Then I drizzled a spoonful of broth over the top to keep it juicy. It was the sort of taco that makes you bow down over your plate in complete surrender.
"Well," I asked Francis, "isn't this as authentic as Otilia's?"
"Yeah," he admitted.
"So would you have gone on a letter-writing campaign about this place?" I asked.
"No," he said, "because I don't like goat and mutton. Not to say it isn't authentic."
"And because you knew gringos wouldn't get it. The goat and mutton aroma, nobody speaks English -- don't you see some xenophobia at work here?" I asked Francis.
"But I still think Otilia's is very authentic," he said.
"The chile en nogada is completely Americanized," I argued.
"Yeah, but I've had the chile en nogada at San Domingo in Mexico City, and I didn't really like it," he said.
"Great, we're in agreement," I responded. "Americans don't want real chile en nogada, and that's why Otilia's serves Americanized Mexican food."
"Wait a minute," Francis said. "If you were a Mexican chef and you opened a Mexican restaurant in Holland and you made cheese enchiladas with Gouda cheese, does that mean they couldn't be authentic Mexican?"
"No, they wouldn't be authentic, but they would taste good -- especially to Dutch people, and that's what I'm trying to say."
Otilia's is a lovely restaurant, and it's doing a wonderful job of bringing a good approximation of interior Mexican food to a non-Mexican audience. But articles that single it out for serving "authentic Mexican" food seem laughably Anglocentric, considering there's a real Hidalgo-style barbacoa pit right down the street. How many of those are there in the United States?
El Hidalguense will never get famous, because it doesn't cater to gringos, and the operators don't care. They are more concerned with providing people from their part of Mexico a place to eat barbacoa de estilo Hidalgo, listen to Huatecan music on the weekends and hang out with their homies. Others may turn up their noses at the funky aromas, but I'll take a place like this over Otilia's any day.
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