(Southern Foodways Alliance 2018 Symposium is almost here! The lunches are coming, the lunches are coming… Meanwhile, a look back at one of 2017’s noontime culinary artistry, courtesy of Tabasco and Chef Hugo Ortega of Houston.)
Houston, Texas. City of my birth. City of NASA, which is the reason it was the city of my birth. Not in any way due to an early-entry astronaut program (though I’m sure I would have qualified); rather, because my father was a mathematician for the Apollo Program. Despite only having lived there the first five or so weeks of my life, I claimed to be a Texan for many moons.
Houston has had a rough go of in recent years, particularly with all that Hurricane Harvey threw at it. But there are many good things happening in Houston, too, and one of those is Chef Hugo Ortega.
June 20, 2017, was Hugo Ortega Day in Houston. That’s right, the mayor of Houston, Texas, made a declaration. And if you read the list of Ortega’s accolades, this day was a long time coming. He was also awarded Best Chef Southwest by the James Beard Foundation. That’s kind of a big deal on its own, not to mention he was also the first Mexican-born chef to win a James Beard award.
Given the national attention he, his restaurants, and his cookbooks have earned in the last couple of decades, would it surprise you to learn that his culinary career began as a dishwasher in one of the restaurants he now co-owns? Chef Ortega immigrated to the US (Houston, in particular) in 1984, and after taking on a few other jobs, landed a position as a dishwasher at Backstreet Cafe. Fast forward through a few promotions and completion of the culinary arts program at Houston Community College, he and his wife now co-own at least four celebrated restaurants in the Houston area, including Backstreet.
At the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium earlier this month (2017), he won something else: the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award. Here is how the SFA describes this award: “The SFA’s Lifetime Achievement Award goes to an individual whom all thinking eaters should know, the sort of person who has made an indelible mark upon our cuisine and our culture, the sort of person who has set regional standards and catalyzed national dialogues.” I’ve only told you the highlights of Ortega’s remarkable career as a chef; add everything up, and this honor makes perfect sense.
Every year the honoree receives a commissioned art piece by Oxford artist Blair Hobbs, and a short film is made about his/her life. But it’s not every year that the attendees of the Symposium get to eat the honoree’s food. This year we had the privilege of experiencing the reasons he is a perennial winner.
As I have mentioned once or thrice, lunch at the SFA Symposium is so big that it requires a sponsor (this time, Tabasco) and has lately been served in multiple courses. The treats that awaited us at the table that day may surprise the average local reader-eater, but are apparently quite common in Puebla, and Oaxaca, Mexico. Bugs. Oh, there was some queso del rancho, some chicharrones, and some huaxmole rojo. But it was hard to overlook the bugs. Chicatanas (flying ants) – “rich and beefy”, per our menu. Chapulines (grasshoppers) – “taste acidic”. And gusanos de maguey (agave worms) – “soft and milky”. At first I just wasn’t sure. But after The Wife tried one, I couldn’t let her outdo me. Now I have been there and I have done that.
The next course was a tamal de elote (corn tamale) with queso fresco, crema and tomatillo criollo. I have racked my second brain (aka the internet) trying to find a good definition of a criollo, to no avail. But in this case, I think it was essentially a tomatillo salsa verde topping this tasty tamale.
Next we were presented with a plate of Chiles en Nogada. This was a wild one, though again, it appears to be a classic dish in certain parts of Mexico. Poblano chiles were stuffed with a picadillo, a mixture of shredded chicken, fruits, almonds and spices, then topped with a walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. Anybody had that at your local Mexican restaurant lately? Yeah, I thought not. And that may be because it’s not exactly easy to make, even if you are a James Beard award-winning chef. We were told that Chef Ortega and his crew “began cleaning walnuts for the Chiles en Nogada this May.” Wow. Fascinating and beautiful.
The plate that followed was also a new entry into my Mexican lexicon: Tabasco Pepper Mash Mixiote de Res in Agave Skin. Translated? A Bag of Delicious. Okay, so I took French in high school, not Spanish. But surely that is close – at the very least, it is accruately descriptive. Upon opening the little bag, I found tender beef chunks (de res) and cactus paddles, seasoned with avocado leaves and the aforementioned Tabasco pepper mash. Traditionally this is cooked by burying in a pit, though it can be done in an oven. I was getting a little full by this point in the meal (gusanos de maguey are surprisingly filling), but of course I didn’t let that stop me.
Nor did I let a little fullness keep me from dessert: Flan de elote (corn) with guava-tequila gelee, and brioche croutons. Creamy and rich does not begin to describe this dish, of which I unashamedly ate at least two. (It pays to linger at the table after these lunches. Just sayin’.) We even got a chance to try a little glass of Tejate, “a nonalcoholic, pre-Hispanic beverage made with maize and cacao.”
Houston will recover, and you will want to visit – if not to calculate flight paths for the next space flight, at least to eat. While there, celebrate with Chef Hugo Ortega. Bugs optional.