A New Year's Sunday Brunch at Hugo's

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It's rare that I have the opportunity to eat brunch on Sundays. I'm usually one of those up-till-the-wee-hour-of-the-morning types, so getting up early on a Sunday is just not part of my regular agenda.

But this last Sunday was special. It was New Year's Day, 2012. And to ring in the new year, I figured I could lose a bit of sleep and start the year fresh with a fabulous meal.

Mission Sunday Brunch was to wake up early, get myself to Hugo's so that my friend wouldn't get stood up, and heartily partake in the bounties of regional Mexican cuisine. It would also be the first time I got to try the famous Hugo's award-winning brunch, so I was excited at the prospect.

I got there about 10 minutes late, but even though the dining room was bustling, it wasn't as packed as I imagined it would be -- this would happen later, around 11 a.m. No, at 10:15 a.m., we were promptly seated at our reserved table, and didn't have to wait for a single person in the buffet line. The glorious array of mouthwatering selections still had that just-from-the-kitchen look, and it was hard not to indulge.

Here's a sampling of what I got during my first trip to the buffet line: shrimp and avocado salad, carnitas, braised brisket, sunny side-up egg over tortilla chips, corn souffle, and a perfectly poached egg on toast. Buffet food doesn't usually appeal to me, but the quality of the food at Hugo's is top-notch, on par with the quality of their a la carte service. Of the items I sampled during round one, the brisket topped with red sauce was just achingly tender, and the corn souffle was unbelievably good.

For round two, the buffet lines had started to form, but it still wasn't bad. I liked the corn souffle so much I got another heaping portion, and this time around, the tray of lamb chops, which I had skipped over, had been replaced with one of my favorite Hugo's entrees, the costillas de puerco al carbon, or pork ribs. I excitedly grabbed a couple of those, a tamale, a roasted ancho chile stuffed with chorizo, and a bowl of their chilpachole de jaiba, or softshell crab soup.

The costillas, which had just been brought out from the kitchen, had a bit of crisp on the outside, the seasoning a savory blend of some dark reddish spices that were truly delectable. I ate with my hands and enjoyed every finger-licking minute. The red chilpachole soup with crab meat was also excellent, if a bit salty, tasting so much like a good bouillabaisse that I wished I had some aoili-smeared croutons to go with it.

By the time I got up for my third round, some of the dishes I'd wanted to try had been rotated out for new, different dishes, like pulpo, or octopus that was just begging to be eaten. In fact, what impressed me the most about the Hugo's brunch was the frequency with which they brought out huge serving pans of new food. The food was always fresh, and the selection was mind-boggling.

Brunch was in full swing around 11:30 a.m., the buffet line about five-10 people deep, the live Mexican band above the balcony playing tune after festive tune. Although the food was undoubtedly good, I almost want to say that the live music was the best part, because it created this illusion that we were somewhere deep in the heart of Mexico, eating this wonderful regional Mexican cuisine.

At the dessert table, I indulged in some of Hugo's famous Mexican hot chocolate, something that is not to be missed if you dine there. The dark, rich drink with a hint of cinnamon was set in a large brown earthenware urn, so that people could self-serve, and since everyone wanted a cup, there was a mini-traffic jam of people waiting to get their fill.

There were also at least a dozen other small cakes and pastries, including bite-size churros and a caramel flan, but the only thing I had my sights set on was the tres leches. Milky, sweet, thick, gorgeous tres leches, arguably one of the best in town, was so decadent and delicious, I had not one, but two slices.

I probably gained five pounds from eating the Hugo's buffet brunch, but I wouldn't have wanted to spend New Year's Sunday any other way. The $27-per-person, all-you-can-eat brunch was worthy of all the accolades I'd heard, and it was a great way to sample dishes that I might not have tried if I'd been ordering a la carte. At the end of the day, I didn't mind waking up early one bit. And I'd gladly do it again. Sunday brunch at Hugo's, anyone?

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