Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 3: Ruben Ortega of Hugo's and the Traditional Foods of Mexico

This week, we've been chatting with Ruben Ortega of Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe. This is the third and final part of a three-part Chef Chat series. If you missed our previous posts, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Ruben is the lesser known sibling of Hugo Ortega, and his official title at Hugo's is that of Pastry Chef. I got to know both brothers last year, while we were standing backstage at the Anthony Bourdain show, waiting to get our books signed by Bourdain and Eric Ripert. Hugo, the older brother, is more formal and more reserved. Ruben is more gregarious, with an open personality and easy sense of humor, which is interesting because even though he goes everywhere with Hugo, he's happy to stay in the background in deference to his older brother.

It made sense when he told me about his background, about their large family, and the fact that he and his brother espouse a more traditional view of their food. Culturally, showing respect for your elders, be it your brother or uncle or grandmother, is strong in ethnic communities, and the Ortega family seems very rooted in tradition. This translates into their food, and the execution of the dishes that come to your table when you visit Hugo's.

When I look at their menu, I'm always racked with indecision. Should I get the Cachetes de Res, beef cheeks with salsa de pasilla, with warm tortillas for rolling, or a Flauta de Conejo, or large rabbit flauta with crema fresca and garlic salsa to start? Ooh, or maybe the Carnitas de Pato of shredded confit of duck with tomatillo sauce, or a my favorite Taquito de langosta, or small lobster taco? All this, and I'm only at the Entremeses, or appetizer section.

For our tasting, I asked Ruben to choose what he thought was a "must" if you go to Hugo's, things that he not only loved, but that showcased the traditions he grew up with. We started with the Lechón, which is an appetizer.

When it's presented to you, it's done so beautifully. The Lechón, a traditional preparation of achiote-rubbed suckling pig, is cooked whole before being shredded in the kitchen. The tender meat is then placed in a banana leaf and topped with crispy strips of just-fried pig chicharron, or skin. Served with a spicy orange habanero sauce, cilantro, onion, pico de gallo, and corn tortillas, you place what you want into the tortilla, and eat it like you would fajitas. The habanero salsa is spicy and fragrant, with a slight sweetness of what tasted to me like pineapples. Each bite of this produced pleasure on my palate: the spicy mouth-burn of the habanero salsa, fresh pops tartness and pico de gallo and onion, and tenderness of the the Lechón combined with the crispy saltiness from the chicharron had me groaning in food happiness.

For the entree, Ruben presented me with two: A traditional Pato en Mole Poblano, or braised duck with a traditional mole from his hometown of Puebla, and the Chuletón con Mole de Huitlacoche, or a ribeye steak topped with a black huitlacoche mole, which he proclaimed his favorite.

I tried the duck dish first. Served with a small triangle of white rice, the duck was simply presented and covered in a dense, nutmeg or cinnamon colored blanket of mole. The mole itself was rich and thick, heavier than a gravy, and opaque with the richness of the many ingredients that went into it. "How many ingredients is in this mole?" I asked. "This one has about 26 ingredients. This one is based on our family recipe. There are the dried peppers, fried plantain, raisins, Mexican chocolate in it," Ruben replied. Slightly sweet from the chocolate and other ingredients, the mole was sublime. Just perfection. What is the opposite of watered-down? Dense? Full? It was all of both of these things, the flavors resonating with the absolute integrity of how it was made. This was authentic.

I didn't think it was possible for the the mole de huitlacoche to top the mole poblano, but when I took my first bite of the juicy, just-charred on the corners ribeye, and swiped it in the black sauce, that's exactly what happened. "Oh, wow," I said. "Wow! This is fantastic!" I exclaimed. Where the mole poblano displayed a sweetness enhanced by chocolate, this huitlocoche mole had a sweetness all on its own -- delicate, fragrant, with a resonant depth of flavor that was just so inexplicably complete. This wasn't an hour-long sauce, or something with a lot of added salt used to mask the flavor. It was complex and pure, made from a recipe that not only stood the test of time, but had been tweaked and improved upon to attain what can only be described as perfection.

For our grand finale, Ruben prepared a corn flan, sprinkled with a corn guava sauce, with a drizzling of tequila, and small squares of brioche croutons. Unlike other versions of corn flan I've tasted, this one was super smooth, its consistency more like a creme brulee or pudding. I liked that it was lightly sweetened instead of overtly sugary, with intermittent pops of crisp from the croutons, and a mildly alcoholic kick in each spoonful.

Respect for tradition, and two brothers and a family working towards the dream of showcasing true Mexican food in Houston --- this is what you get when you go to Hugo's.

Hugo's 1600 Westheimer Rd Tel: (713) 524-7744

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham