Hugo’s – Houston, TX
1600 Westheimer Road
People will argue that Mexican food gets better the closer you get to Mexico. While this makes sense in theory, it doesn’t always work in practice. Texas, for example, is right across the border but has adapted Mexican food and made it their own – the birth of Tex-Mex pretty much means that real Mexican is difficult to find. Great Mexican? Even more difficult.
In the Westheimer area in Houston, Hugo’s Restaurant is trying to change that perception. Serving high quality Mexican cuisine that represents the best of all regional cuisines, I have to admit, I’m a bit skeptical. Places that try to represent too many different cuisines have a tendency to be good at all, but master of none.
From the large gated doors to the vaulted ceilings and chandeliers, the space is 1925 traditional with elements of contemporary. I don’t see the supposed elements of “chic” they are aiming for, but it’s a reasonably nice atmosphere characterized mostly by the slightly uncomfortably large gaps of space between tables.
Service is efficient and educated, and they are helpful in picking out what they feel are the best dishes on the menu. They guide us around some favorites, while we interject with our own preferences and end up with what I feel is a good representation with what they have to offer.
Among the starters is a Mole de Olla – hearty oxtail soup. Originating from the Bajio and Tlaxcala regions, this beef stew is nicely served with oxtail, giving it a richness that many cuts of beef cannot provide. Depth of flavour is provided by the pasilla chile. This version is rich rich rich in beef flavour, but nicely balanced with tremendous depth of flavour and some freshness that characterizes good Mexican cuisine. It’s a bit oily, especially due to some long simmering times, but overall it’s a very good dish.
For me, Tamales are some of the simplest, yet most difficult things to do well. I’ll take any opportunity to try Tamales – today, we tried two kinds. Tamal de Acamaya, and Tamal de Hongo.
These tamales are wonderful. The masa is a perfect blend texturally of smooth and coarse, great masa flavour, with a wonderful hint of flavour from the corn husks. The filling ratio is high, as you can see with the Tamal de Hongo, which is loaded with mushrooms. The Acamaya, a fresh water crawfish, is sweet, yet a little more subtle. Both are excellent.
For entrees, im having trouble deciding which one to try – there are a lot of great choices! My dining companions, generous to a fault, select their entrees so i can sample the three i wish to try the most. Thanks guys!
Costillas de Cerdo al Carbon – achiote marinated pork ribs, grilled over mesquite. Im expecting perfectly tender ribs with a charred, smoky flavour and sweetness from the caramelized glaze. It’s pretty close, though the ribs are a touch dry. The flavour is outstanding in terms of balance of heat, sweet, and acidity.
Braised lamb leg – a special of the day, in an ancho chile sauce. Sold as “the most filling thing on the menu”, it was suggested I take advantage as it was a real treat when it was on the menu. Resting on greens and served with a fresh salsa and guacamole, the photo fails to do it justice. It was very large!
More importantly, it was perfectly roasted. The meat was tender, flavourful, and impeccably cooked. The flavours melded well – the red sauce had a very light touch, which allowed some of the lamb flavour to shine through. Fresh, subtle, yet flavourful. A masterful blend of flavour and execution.
Our last entree was Cochinitas Pibil – a slow roasted baby pig cooked in banana leaf. This Yucatan staple is one of my favorites, marinated in achiote and citrus acidity, this slow roasted meat brings an amazing balance of tenderness, flavour, and freshness. I like how it makes a heavy meat feel light.
In this case, im a bit disappointed. The meat is sufficiently tender, but the flavour is really mellow and laid back. This would be ok, if it worked in concert with the flavour of the suckling pig, but it doesnt. You have a bit of gamey pork on one side, and very light citrus on the other. A distinct lack of presence from the achiote makes for 3 nice components that dont blend that well together. I would give this dish a pass.
For me, no Latin American meal would be complete without Churros. These are served with Mexican hot chocolate, and a scoop of fresh mocha ice cream. The churros themselves are freshly fried, crispy, sweet, chewy slices of goodness, filled with dulche de leche. These are an exemplary. I could’ve eaten another plate of them.
All told, Hugo’s is an excellent Mexican restaurant, that holds true to the principles of fresh ingredients and balanced dishes – earthy and complex balanced with light fresh flavours. There are occasionally a few choices in approach that I don’t agree with, but the execution is solid, and the food is excellent. While this is not the best Mexican i’ve ever had, it is the best Mexican i’ve had in Texas. If you’re ever in Houston and in the mood to step out from Tex-Mex fare, give Hugo’s a try.