Posts Tagged With: houston tx

Lunch with Hugo Ortega

(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.  

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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.  

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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.   

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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. 

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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.    

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Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium 2014, Part Two: Arepas and Underbellies

About a year ago I went to Houston, Texas for a seminar. Not long after that I went to Oxford for the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium. Ironically (or not?) the same chef showed up in both places. This is the story of that. And a little more.
My first night on the first trip to Houston I went with friends to Underbelly restaurant, the creation of Chef Chris Shepherd. I was slightly confused later as I read in the SFA’s weekly digest that a series of audio food documentaries (aka oral histories) had recently been done, also called the Underbelly of Houston. Lots of bellies here. I wondered if there was a link, and in a way, there was.
When I was in the midst of figuring out where I wanted to eat out in Houston, two different local residents (who have no ties to each other save the fact that they know me) recommended Underbelly – the restaurant. I was intrigued by what I discovered. Chef Chris describes his cuisine as Creole, defined as “the merging of diverse cultures with local ingredients.” Naturally, this kind of thing happens often in port cities, and Houston is the largest port city in the South. But he didn’t just say, “I want to do something Sichuan tonight” and pull out a Chinese cookbook – he found Cori Xiong and Heng Chen, the couple that owns Mala Sichuan Bistro, and learned from them. I’m told he also did the same thing in a number of other ethnic restaurants, and even encourages his restaurant patrons to check out some of these places before they come back to Underbelly.

Chef Chris plating at the Powerhouse

Chef Chris plating at the Powerhouse

At the Symposium each year, there is a big lunch on Saturday with a guest chef. This year’s lunch was given the moniker “Tabasco Dim Sum Luncheon” and Chef Chris led the way. I’ve never been to a dim sum restaurant (one more for the bucket list), but I’ve seen one on TV. Often the small portions of food are brought around on a cart, and the diner can pick and choose from several different options. This is basically how it was done at the luncheon, all the way down to the extravagantly decorated grocery carts. (Yes, there was a cart parade.)

Shopping cart bling

Shopping cart bling

At Underbelly (the restaurant – try to keep up) there is a full-on butcher shop where they make their own charcuterie, but this is not your Uncle Sal from Sicily’s salami. Some of the things we tried in Oxford were pho-spiced bresaola, paneer summer sausage, Sichuan saucisson sec, Vietnamese pickled pork sausage, whipped Gochujang lardo – and that all came with lard biscuits. Sadly, the biscuits were about the only things I could readily identify.

Charcuterie and pickles...and a biscuit!

Charcuterie and pickles…and a biscuit!

The charcuterie plate was waiting for us when we sat at the table. There were also pickles: daikon, red beans, soy green beans, mustard greens and carrots. The rest came in a controlled flurry in the wildly colorful carts. Salt Snapper Fried Rice. Sweet and Spicy Tabasco-glazed Ham Ribs. Korean Goat and Dumplings. The goat dish is on the menu at Underbelly, also, and by popular demand is one of a rare few that have not rotated off. This was not my first time to eat goat, but it was certainly the version with the most flavor.

Got goat?

Got goat?

But wait. There’s more.
Fried chicken with Tabasco-spiked Gulf Coast XO sauce, the chef’s version of a Chinese seafood sauce. Also from that genre, broccoli with caramelized fish sauce. Garlic cucumbers appeared about now, then fried bologna steam buns with Tabasco-infused Mayo. This was certainly not your Uncle Bob from Big Creek’s bologna sandwich. But it was good. Along the way were cold Sichuan noodles and eggplant with fig miso.

Bologna has come a long way, baby.

Bologna has come a long way, baby.

My favorite of the dozen plus courses was the char siu buckboard bacon with shrimp chow mein. I didn’t really recognize this as bacon, to be quite honest, and there is a reason. Typical bacon is made from pork belly. Buckboard bacon is from the butt or loin. And char siu is a Cantonese method of making barbecue pork. Every bite I ate seemed to get better and better.
Are we seeing the merging of diverse cultures yet, the real underbelly? Asian cheese in the summer sausage – you won’t find that at the Hickory Farms kiosk. Mustard greens I know, but pickled? Fried bologna bao? This was the kind of meal not to be entered with any preconceived notions, other than “Whatever that is in the takeout container is bound to be good.” And who doesn’t love a parade?

Bucket o' buckboard bacon

Bucket o’ buckboard bacon

Backtrack to breakfast, same day: another international meal to prepare us for the fusion to come. An arepa is a Venezuelan sandwich – a grilled cornmeal patty, sliced in half and stuffed with goodies. I had heard of them, but not served this way, and certainly not for breakfast. Lis Hernandez is the one who brought them to us, all the way from her shop in Atlanta: Arepa Mia.
The main arepa was the one she calls the Pernil – slow-roasted pork with caramelized onions. There were squeeze bottles on the table that looked as if they contained extreme green guacamole – cilantro sauce and guasacaca sauce. The two were similar, both with lots of cilantro, but the guasacaca had oil, vinegar and garlic while the other had mayo and jalapeno. For the vegetarians and the curiously hungry (that would be me) she offered another version with roasted butternut squash, eggplant, black beans, and caramelized onion. It didn’t make me want to be a vegetarian – the other one was roasted pork, for goodness’ sake – but it certainly left the garden gate open.

Condiment Coozies?

Condiment Coozies?

As I reflect (mouth watering) on these two meals, I have a couple of questions. It’s been a year and I haven’t eaten anything from Chris Shepherd – what did I do wrong? And would it be unfair to dream of a bowl game in Atlanta just for an arepa?

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