Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Patio at Hugos Restaurant, James Beard and Giotto


"...wanted good marijuana from Oaxaca. Back then we called that coveted weed Oaxacan Gold. Now I’m an old broad who gets giddy over Oaxacan mole sauce.."


The Patio at Hugos, James Beard and Giotto

I thank Christy Karll for introducing me to the patio at Hugos. Prior to my night on the patio with Christy, I regularly sat in Hugo’s inner sanctum at the bar, or at a table near the windows. Not anymore. Now I head straight to the patio.

That was where I wanted to be on December 3, when Donnie and I had an anniversary.

Where do you want to go for your anniversary? I want to walk to Hugos and sit on the patio. And I want a bowl of Sopa de Calabaza, the most elegant pumpkin soup ever concocted, with cream and wine and onions and peppers. I suspect Hugo sneaks some sherry into his pumpkin soup. And I want Hugo’s lobster taco, Taquito de Langosta, and most importantly I want Costillas de Borrego, lamb ribs with mole sauce. It’s a meticulous mole sauce. And I want a great Cabernet.

That was in December. Don’t look for Sopa de Calabaza on the menu today. Hugo serves the soup in Fall and Winter, when the pumpkin is fresh.



It wasn’t anyone’s anniversary, and there was an unexpected lull in the brutal July heat, but on Wednesday evening Donnie and I walked to Hugos with Laura and Barry. We sat on the patio.

Laura and Barry just returned from northern Italy, where they rented a house in Verona, and saw medieval architecture and ancient archaeological sites, and ate at yummy restaurants. They saw some of the Biennale, and stayed at a chalet, and hiked in the Dolomites.

“Oh, and we attended a performance of Aida in the Roman amphitheater, and went to Padua to see the Arena Chapel.” With this, I needed another drink.

My mind fidgeted with the parallels of a tenor sighing “Celeste Aida” in Verona’s Roman arena, and Giotto applying celestial blue paint in Padua’s Arena Chapel, built on the ruins of an ancient Roman arena. Downright sensual. And, despite Dante and Vasari’s considerable judgement that Giotto’s ability to steal Cimabue’s thunder was divinely ordained, I personally believe Giotto owed his teacher gratitude for revealing the artistic possibilities of heavenly blue paint.

Tu di mia vita sei lo splendor.


Hugo’s margarita is impeccable. The Hugo Rita is made with agave tequila, and is assiduously mixed. Also, we wolfed down some appetizers: Ceviche Verde, mixed fish, avocado, cucumber, olive, jalapeño, cactus, cilantro, tomatillo, and lime juice. Queso Flameado, grilled steak, onions, mushrooms, poblano peppers, and Chihuahua cheese. Also Lechon, pieces of braised tender suckling pig with crisp skin, habanero salsa, and tortillas. As well, Pulpo Al Carbon, chunks of grilled octopus, onions and peppers, chipotle tomatillo salsa with small tortillas.

According to Hugo Ortega, the authentic Mexican cuisine he serves hails from his mother and grandmother. Hugo’s mother had eight children.


There’s no need to jabber on about Hugo’s success, the media widely covered his story. A 17-year-old from Mexico City and Oaxaca, in 1984 Hugo illegally entered this country without a peso in his pocket. He hustled work, and performed any job he could get, washed dishes in a bar, he cleaned floors in an office building. In Houston he landed the cushy job of dishwasher at Backstreet Café, graduated to line cook, and ultimately became executive chef. He became a citizen, completed culinary school, and now co-owns Backstreet Café, Hugos, Caracol, and Xochi, and other businesses.

In 2017, the James Beard award for Best Chef Southwest made Hugo Ortega a food rock star.

Donnie has some of James Beard’s books in our kitchen. In one, Beard admonishes readers against serving crappy hors d’oeuvres at cocktail parties. “Many of the snacks created for such occasions are excellent, and many are garbage, one owes it to his guests to know the difference.”

Beard coughed up that advice in the voluminous American Cookery, which I ploughed through for informative tidbits about the history of American cuisine. But not everyone will find the bow-tie wearing fat man’s patrician tone and sarcastic irony sufficiently enjoyable. Thomas McNamee described Beard as a “man of stupendous appetites - for food, sex, money, you name it - which stunned his subtler colleagues.”

Donnie peels boiled lobsters like he’s on crack. And makes a godforsaken mess with lobster shells all over the kitchen, however his homemade lobster bisque from James Beard’s recipe is incomparable. The chunks of lobster floating in heavy cream, butter, and wine sauce put me in an ecstatic state, and I become hell bent on sopping French bread in my bisque. And don’t care how much I weigh. Beard’s lobster bisque recipe calls for sherry, which I suspect is an ingredient in Hugo’s pumpkin soup.

As my readers know, I’m not a food critic. Critics annoy me. I am however intensely interested in people who do fun things, and do them brilliantly.

In my hippie days, I wanted good marijuana from Oaxaca. Back then we called that coveted weed Oaxacan Gold. Now I’m an old broad who gets giddy over Oaxacan mole sauce. I find it interesting indeed that the mole Hugo serves on Costillas de Borrego, the lamb ribs I wanted on the patio in December, purports to come directly from pre-colonial Oaxacan culinary tradition. The fact is, food historians identified seven classic moles of Oaxaca, one of which is the pepper and fruit-filled manchamanteles mole Hugo makes. Not sure if Hugo uses pineapple or mango in his manchamanteles mole, he might use both, however I am sure that the fruit and spices and cinnamon and stewed meats are the same ingredients the ancient Mixtec and Zapotec peoples who built the imperial cities of Monte Albán and Tenochtitlán used in their moles.

On the sublime topic of architecture, Hugo did a fine job of preserving his building. I remember when that building, which dates to 1925, was a plumbing store and I shopped there. Years ago I watched while the restoration went on, and felt happy Hugo retained the ornamental finials on top of the architectural façade, and incorporated lush landscaping against the old brick and wood trim. Our old house, which also dates to 1925, is about five blocks away.

All images of Hugo Ortega’s work, from Hugo’s Facebook and Instagram




Images:

1-Chuleta de Puerco, double-cut pork chop with winter squash-chapulin butter crust and roasted vegetables

2-Sopa de Calabaza, Winter pumpkin soup

3-Costillas de Borrego, lamb ribs with manchamanteles mole – Hugo’s facebook

4-Hugo's Patio

5-Chef Hugo Ortega, James Beard winner

6- Hugo’s booze – Cinco de Mayo

7-Taquito de Langosta, small lobster taco, frijoles refritos, pico de gallo

8-Hugo's building façade, 1600 Westheimer, Hugo Ortega website

@hugos
hugos_houston


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