Living La Vida Local at Hugo's

The last week of August marks the end of squash blossom season at Hugo's (1600 Westheimer), the restaurant that popularized the edible flowers here in Houston. Hugo Ortega, chef and owner, is sad that another season is almost over. But in his typical, happy-go-lucky spirit, he says, "We enjoy it while it lasts and once that passes by, then it's time to grow something else."

The squash blossoms at Hugo's are just one of the items of produce that Ortega has grown locally for the restaurant (as well as sister restaurant Backstreet Cafe). Ortega doesn't make a fuss over growing produce locally, as many Houston restaurants do. It's not crowed about from the menu or signs in the restaurant. For him, it's simply a lifestyle that started when he was a young kid growing up in Puebla, Mexico.

"It's a way of living in Mexico," he says simply. "We went to the market each morning, to the butcher, we cook and then we eat. It's the same in Spain, it's the same all over."

Ortega takes a very different view of the trend towards eating locally, eating "slow." One that is perhaps a bit less impressed with the current movement back to our roots -- back to everyone's roots -- but that is nevertheless encouraging.

"I think in America, we've been spoiled," he states. "I hate to put it that way -- this country is magic, it's where things happen -- but we get spoiled."

"The portions in restaurants are enormous," he sighs. "But people are starting to realize that you can also eat well and cook locally and enjoy the friendship much more than if you are just sitting at a table and eating a pound of food."

That's one of the things that's driven Ortega to contract with local farmers in places like Needville to get supplies of squash blossoms, tomatoes, herbs and even pomegranates for Hugo's famous chiles en nogada, the signature dish of Puebla.

The restaurant goes through an untold amount of squash blossoms each summer, in part because of a seasonal menu that's entirely devoted to the bright yellow flowers. A typical week at Hugo's will see 15 to 20 cases used, with each case holding 100 blossoms. They'll be stuffed with goat cheese, battered and fried. They'll be made into a summery salad with purslane, avocado and farm-fresh herbs. They'll be made into quesadillas or enchiladas -- any way you want them, Hugo's has a squash blossom dish to suit your appetite.

Because of the increased popularity of this highly seasonal ingredient, Ortega wanted to find a way to grow the squash blossoms locally. "I'm happy we did, because prior to that we brought them in from California, from San Diego and Encenada. It was more expensive, so once I got it locally the circle was closed."

The same farmer who grows tomatoes and other herbs for Ortega is now also his sole purveyor of squash blossoms. "About three or four years ago, I had a friend with property in Needville and she'd been selling herbs and a few things to us for years," he elaborates. "So I told her that the squash blossoms is a way of life in Puebla and could you get your hands on some? I could sell them to friends and in the restaurant and put them on the menu."

"First we did one plot, the second year we did a few more, and then last year she built a greenhouse -- so she has hundreds of plants now in this greenhouse," he laughs. "It's just huge!"

And although there are only a couple of weeks left to enjoy the season, that's part of the joy of growing and offering the flowers to his diners: "It's a lot of fun," Ortega smiles. "It's something very personal that you do. You get connected with the land and growing the plants, with making friends."

Perhaps part of the reason Ortega doesn't make a fuss over his locally grown produce is the many years he's spent in the restaurant industry, growing and becoming more comfortable in his skin. "When I was younger, I was feeling a lot of pressure to grow and use things," he explains. "As you mature and appreciate and things fall in place, then it's fun and you enjoy it more."

Hugo's isn't the only place he's having fun these days. Ortega is also manning a booth at the Urban Harvest Farmers Market on Saturday mornings. A typical morning for him is showing visitors what can be done with the products that are for sale at the neighboring booths: "This past Saturday, we did some tomatoes with basil and Texas olive oil. The man who sells the tomatoes is over there, the man who makes the olive oil is over there, the man who grows the microbasil and other herbs is over there."

More than just displaying the bounty of the market, Ortega enjoys interacting with customers. "People are very friendly and engaged with what you're doing," he says. "People really enjoy seeing you and cooking with you. It's just a great situation and thing to do -- when people actually see you cutting the vegetables, mixing it, chatting with you, they love to see how you do it and why you do it -- it's something very personal and it makes you feel appreciated."

And in the future, Ortega wants to take that mutual appreciation to its natural end: taking people with him as he picks out produce, cooks it and eats it, just as they still do in Puebla. The love of fresh produce isn't just better for the environment, better for our health or a self-involved food trend. For Ortega, it's more than that.

"It enriches the lives of cooks: You're much closer to the chain of food. It's about friendship and relationships and getting in touch with nature and helping each other."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Katharine Shilcutt