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Josh

Hugo's, Chef Hugo Ortega's Upscale Mexican on Westheimer and Mandell Street in Montrose

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Having returned to Texas after a 20-year absence, I've been trying to immerse myself in as much Houston-ness (and Texas-ness as a whole) as I possibly can.  Gotta get back into the swing of things.  So far, this has meant an embarrassing number of tacos (of the breakfast and non varieties), barbecue galore, all manor of delicious Vietnamese things, Whataburger lunches, and of course, vats of queso.  I don't think I've had a non-Texas beer since returning, and I don't feel a longing for anything else at this point. (OK, that's a bit of a lie, as I would kill for a Bell's Two-Hearted right now.)  So in that spirit, Hugo's seemed to be a natural choice of venue to celebrate my ##th birthday last week.

Dinner started with margaritas (there are a number of interesting variations to choose from in addition to the very well-made standard), chapulines (fried grasshoppers served with salsa, guacamole, and blue corn tortillas), and tamales de pescado.  Our waiter only showed the slightest raise of the eyebrow with the chapulines order, but I wanted to compare what I would be served at a restaurant with tablecloths and an award-winning wine program with what I bought in a paper bag in the market in Oaxaca years ago.  The crispy critters are served with a standard guacamole, and smoky, mildly spiced chipotle salsa, meant to be wrapped in deliciously thick blue corn tortillas.  The bugs themselves are nicely crispy, with no untoward chewiness, and nicely salted.  

The winner of this round (and the whole night, really), though, were the fish tamales.  Served three to an order, wrapped in banana leaves, these were impossibly light, moist, and filled with nicely cooked bits of white fish (I should've asked what type, but it's mildly flavored and on the lighter side).  A pleasantly bright and fresh salsa Veracruzana comes alongside and completes the dish.  These are a must-order item.

I moved on to the cabrito, tender roasted goat served with sautéed cactus, guacamole, rustic corn tortillas, and a fiery habanero salsa.  I love the gaminess of goat, but even timid souls would get along with this preparation.  My only caveat is that the salsa is no joke, and clashed mightily with the glass of Rioja I paired with the dish.  My wife's callo de hacha (scallops) were perfectly seared, and placed atop a half-inch thick slab of sweet cornbread.  The menu mentions rajas con crema, though here the poblanos are blended with the cream, creating a pale green sauce topping the bread.  Very nice dish, though it seemed tame after a few bites of my habanero salsa.

Service was solid throughout, and if you want, the valet service will even wash your car while you eat (which I had no idea was a thing).  Chef Ortega has been a Houston fixture, and on the shortlist for a James Beard several times, and not without reason.  We'll be back, especially to check out the Sunday brunch buffet, and of course, for more of those tamales de pescado.    

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2 hours ago, Josh said:

The winner of this round (and the whole night, really), though, were the fish tamales.  Served three to an order, wrapped in banana leaves, these were impossibly light, moist, and filled with nicely cooked bits of white fish (I should've asked what type, but it's mildly flavored and on the lighter side).  

Chef Ortega has been a Houston fixture, and on the shortlist for a James Beard several times, and not without reason.  We'll be back, especially to check out the Sunday brunch buffet, and of course, for more of those tamales de pescado.    

I greatly prefer tamales cooked in banana leaves; those sound delicious. And Hugo Ortega is indeed a Texas culinary legend with an amazing personal story. 

Hope you have a chance to report on Caracol sometime. 

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9 hours ago, Josh said:

So in that spirit, Hugo's seemed to be a natural choice of venue to celebrate my ##th birthday last week.

Aha! So you're over 9 and under 100! We'll narrow this down yet, Bucko.

"untoward chewiness" was funny.

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Visited Hugo's last week for lunch. While our service was not exactly spot on (my husband suspects he got the wrong margarita, and it was clear that they were understaffed as our waiter kept disappearing), the food was amazing. My husband had the Chiles en Nogada with pork ("Two, walnut-crusted poblano peppers stuffed with your choice of either pork, brisket or vegetables mixed with red and green apple, pear, peach, plantain, sweet potato, almonds and raisins, and topped with your choice of sweet or savory walnut cream sauce, garnished with pomegranate seeds and parsley"), and he was delighted with the presentation as well as the taste. I enjoyed the enchiladas verde with chicken served with white rice and a tiny dollop of finely pureed refried black beans (delicious!). For a lunch portion, this was plenty of food. We were tempted by the appetizers, especially since they are Dos por $22, but in the end, we were quite satisfied with our margarita plus entree lunch.

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Congratulations to Hugo Ortega, 2017 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef - Southwest.

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Even after 15 years, this still the place to be in Houston any day of the week.

The space is anything you want it to be -- romantic, casual, a party -- but above all it’s a fun restaurant to be at. You have that warm feeling when you’re inside, when you know you’re about to eat a really good meal. And Hugo Ortega’s kitchen, with years of fine-tuning, delivers exactly that.

I don't have a comparison point for my chapulines ($10), but if there are better versions than Hugo’s I’d be very impressed. Not overly crunchy, with a salty-sour filling. If you’re squeamish there is plenty of guacamole and salsa to overwhelm them with, along with delicious blue corn tortillas -- noticeably superior to the ones I ate at Xochi. Insects are still not quite a craving for me, but these are well-executed and worth experiencing. 

The lechon ($13) however, is a treat I would return from Dallas for. Wrapped in a banana leaf and with beautiful crackling on top, this was braised suckling pig at its best. I would use a very light hand with the accompanying habanero salsa, as it is legitimately hot (and overwhelming). Regular corn tortillas on the side for taco-making, again exemplary versions of the handmade variety. 

A taco de langosta ($12) was the only misstep for me. It reads beautifully on the menu, but upon arrival, conception and execution were both to blame. A smaller corn tortilla really cannot handle the heft of a small lobster tail (it’s that awkwardness I hate about oversized burgers), and the lobster itself was overcooked. So a struggle in several ways to finish.

Blemish aside, it's still very easy to fall in love with Hugo's after all these years. Despite Ortega's growing restaurant expansion and the personal accolades, there remains a great energy to the place -- an excitement that cannot be manufactured. 

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