Posts Tagged With: tamales

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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Giving Lunch Its Due

(The 21st Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium is just days away.  Lunch is a big deal there, and the one described below was perfectly suited to last year’s El Sur Latino focus.)

I think lunch in the good ol’ USA gets a bum rap.  In some countries, lunch is the biggest meal of the day.  There, if you’re going to get invited to a meal, it’s usually lunch.  There are courses sometimes.  And maybe tea afterwards.  And the best places are the ones that encourage naps after all that, as the good Lord intended.  (Otherwise why would we be sleepy after lunch?)

Meanwhile, in the 8 to 5-ish workweek here in America, if you get an hour to eat lunch (never mind the time it takes you to get to a restaurant and back) you’re pretty lucky.  Some get a half hour, and many eat at their desks or standing up while continuing to work.  Sunday lunch is about as close as many of us get to a leisurely noonday meal, save perhaps the occasional holiday feast.  

That’s one of the reasons I so enjoy the lunches at the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium.  There, lunch is celebrated.  The skills of the chef are extolled.  The tables are decorated to the nth degree.  The servers are given standing o’s.  And the eaters partake of multiple dishes that yesterday we didn’t know we loved.  These lunches are so big they require a sponsor.  

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Just an average lunch setup at the SFA…

Our first lunch of the weekend, brought to us by Springer Mountain Farms, featured Chef Eddie Hernandez of Taqueria Del Sol.  I was first introduced to this group of restaurants a few years ago in the Atlanta metro area – they have since expanded into Nashville.  Chef Eddie has developed a menu there that blends the flavors and traditions of his home, Monterrey, Mexico, and the American South.  I think I can say with 97% certainty that it was in one of his restaurants that I enjoyed my first barbecue taco, which he calls The Memphis: chopped smoked pork with a spicy jalapeño coleslaw and tequila BBQ sauce.  Since then I have had many, but Chef Eddie’s was my gateway barbecue taco.  

This SFA lunch was also given a name.  (Do you name your lunches?  No?  See what I mean?  No respect.)  He called it, “Five Stops on a Journey from Monterrey.”  The first stop on the journey was waiting for us on the tables: Cajun boiled peanuts with chile de arbol, a blend of flavors from Georgia, Louisiana and Mexico.  Boiled peanuts are a snack that I didn’t appreciate till I’d been overseas a few years and someone sent a pack to a friend of mine.  All of a sudden I became the expert in the room.

Next we were served a red chile pork tamale, inspired by his travels through Texas as a musician, where he learned, “just about everything goes with tamales.”  Apparently, even armadillo.  We were not served armadillo that day.  But I was intrigued by the story he told of the crawfish tamale with the etouffee sauce.  Tamales are another food I didn’t appreciate until adulthood – perhaps because as a youngster, I’d never seen one that didn’t emerge from a can.  Now that I’ve made them myself, it’s a whole new world of masa and more.  

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The next plate to come out was refried pinto bean tostadas with Doe’s Salad.  I haven’t been to Doe’s yet (I know, I know…it’s time to change that), so I haven’t had the salad.  But apparently their style of salad is similar to what is served in the ports of western Mexico, dressed with lemon and oil.  I was stunned at the brightness of flavor this salad brought to a refried bean tostada.  And somehow, some way, they also tasted buttery – it must have been the beans.  This was one of my favorite bites of the weekend, and from an informal poll (so informal you could call it eavesdropping, I guess) many others agreed with me.  

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Another favorite bite was his Chicken Pot Pie with a side of turnip greens. How many times have you heard about a taqueria with amazing turnip greens? These turnip greens are served at Taqueria del Sol and were featured in Garden and Gun magazine as one of 100 Southern Foods You Absolutely Must Eat Before You Die.  (I carry that list when I travle.  Now make that 14 down, 86 to go.)  TDS greens have onion, garlic, diced tomatoes, chicken stock (no pork in these), and more chile de arbol.  Side note: my uber-powerful search engine tells me this pepper is also known as a bird’s beak chile or rat-tail chile, but I bet those names won’t be on the placard at the grocery.  

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Okay, back to the pot pie.  I grew up with chicken pot pie – the kind that started as a frozen block which could be used as a weapon, then after an interminable wait (those were the days before microwaves) were delivered with lava-hot insides to unsuspecting children.  This one was very, very different.  The secret, says Chef Eddie, was in roasting the chicken before putting it in the sauce.  And that sauce; it was so rich it almost had a sweet taste – I couldn’t get enough.  But what set this pot pie apart from any and all others I have ever enjoyed was the “crust”.  All this deliciousness came in a bowl made from a tortilla.  It was not crispy like a taco salad shell, but just hard enough to hold the filling.  Now I’m spoiled forever.  

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Dessert was one more blend of Mexico and the South: chocolate chimichanga with tequila-Grand Marnier cream sauce.  The dark chocolate filling and that drizzle of cream were made for each other, a want-to-lick-the-plate kind of experience.  (I settled for a serious plate-scraping with my fork.  There were lots of cameras around.)

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If you find yourself in Atlanta (and who doesn’t, eventually?), I suggest you find yourself at a Taqueria del Sol.  

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