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The Apprentice

How a few formative years out in the middle of nowhere led Hugo Ortega to places he never imagined.

By April 2017Comments

Queso del rancho.
Photograph by Jody Horton

When Hugo Ortega was ten, his mother and father and their eight children left Mexico City and went to live with his grandparents in the middle of nowhere (his words, not mine). For a street-smart urban kid, the move was devastating. The small working farm had no electricity or running water. When the sun set, they went to bed. When the sun rose, they got up. They might as well have been living in the nineteenth century. Ortega missed his friends, but little by little, he acclimated. He even came to appreciate the isolated mountainous terrain, outside the city of Puebla. “It was a unique time in my life,” he told me, “remote, detached from the world.” At night, he gazed up at the sky, spangled with a million stars. During the day, he stayed close to his mother and grandmother as they made food the old way—grinding corn by hand, charring cactus pads over a fire, toasting cacao beans. Best of all were the days they made mole, Mexico’s earthy and endlessly varied sauce. “My grandmother would spend two or three days shopping, mixing, and roasting,” he said. “She devoted herself to it heart and soul. Everybody of her generation did.” Ortega gravitated toward the kitchen, learning, helping, soaking it all in. Cooking became fundamental to who he was. Fast-forward three decades and the boy who hung around the kitchen is the chef and owner of the two best-known Mexican restaurants in Houston—indeed, in Texas. In January these venues, Hugo’s and Caracol, were joined by a third, Xochi. Focusing on the masterful cuisine of Oaxaca—a two-hour drive from where he once lived—it is his most ambitious effort yet.

On my first visit to Xochi (pronounced “So-chee” and meaning “to bloom or catch fire”), I ate alone. The menu online had listed so many exciting, exotic-sounding dishes, like tamal de Tichinda, a “traditional mussel tamal from Pinotepa,” that I felt quite overwhelmed. So I slipped into a booth at lunch and ordered—what else?—a tasting of four moles. Then I surveyed the space, which is located downtown in the luxe new Marriott Marquis Hotel. The tables were smartly set with stainless that looked like hammered silver, but the feeling of the room was easy and casual. Here and there were rustic pots that could have graced the tomb of an Olmec king (but probably didn’t). A long bar lined one wall, plate-glass windows the other. In a back dining room was a wonderful collection of whimsical folk-art animal heads: an aqua-blue cat, a bighorn sheep, a goggle-eyed owl. It felt like a children’s book come to life.

In short order, my moles arrived, along with supple house-made corn tortillas. First up was a fantastic black mole, a velvet puree of nuts and chiles (including the elusive chilhuacle negro, rare even in Oaxaca) enriched with a smidge of chocolate; it reminded me of a more resonant mole poblano. Next came puya chile mole, salty and bright (note to the squeamish: immersed in the sauce is a bonus in the form of crunchy flying ants). The last two moles were tart red huaxmole (tomato-based, a little smoky, made with the garlicky-tasting seeds of the huax tree) and a thin mole verde, forest green from bushels of cilantro, parsley, green onions, and hoja santa leaf. Just for the heck of it I finished up with wonderful chicken-stuffed taquitos dorados (think flautas) and an order of molotes, torpedo-shaped masa-and-chorizo hush puppies topped with crema and a small swarm of crunchy grasshoppers. It was like being in a Oaxaca market.

The next night, five of us happily squeezed into a booth meant for four. Determined that my companions go native at least once, I badgered them to try the queso del rancho: salty aged queso cincho sided by chicharr-ones and topped with huaxmole rojo studded with ants, grasshoppers, and agave larvae (second note for the squeamish: make tacos and you won’t even notice the critters). Then I let my friends order what they really wanted, which was a splendid crudo of scallop and avocado drizzled with a sweet-tart prickly pear syrup, a lovely study in pink and green. It bested the other seafood choice, a fine but not dazzling wood-roasted octopus on a too-thick masa pancake.

Clockwise from left: Ortega; the dining room;the scallop-and-avocado crudo.

Photographs by Jody Horton

 

As we wound our way through the menu, I came to appreciate what Ortega has pulled off here. Yes, the offerings are deeply and enthusiastically Mexican, but even the most timid eater can find a hamburger or an enchilada. In fact, one of our favorite dishes was the braised skirt steak roll-ups arrayed alongside small roasted potatoes, carrots, and itty-bitty masa dumplings in a gentle three-chile broth. The dish—barbacoa de res de Zaachila—was named for a fourteenth-century Zapotec warrior, but it reminded me a lot of American Sunday supper.

It’s easy to overorder here, but trust me on this: Do. Not. Skip. Dessert. Xochi’s pastry chef is Ortega’s younger brother Ruben, and the man is a magician. Did you really think that was a cacao pod on your plate? Silly you (me too). No, the super-realistic shell is molded of hard white chocolate and airbrushed with food coloring. Tucked inside is a grab bag of treats: chocolate sponge cake, chocolate nibs, strawberry cream–filled chocolate bonbons, airy chocolate crisps. And what about the dessert that looks like four perfect ears of baby corn? It’s corn ice cream, atop an otherworldly pool of silken blue-corn atole sauce.

Xochi feels like a turning point for Ortega. Ever since he opened Hugo’s, fifteen years ago, he’s been a rock star in Houston. What he has now is an incredibly visible and potentially national venue. The Marriott Marquis is a premium hotel a block from the sprawling Houston Convention Center, which is visited by tens of thousands of people a year. Word will spread. I would not be surprised if, within a year, his name is mentioned by national critics in the same breath with Gabriela Cámara or Enrique Olvera or Rick Bayless. He’s that good. When we left, I had a who-would-have-thought-it moment when I recalled something Ortega had told me several days before, about his grandmother’s kitchen in Puebla. “It feels so remote now,” he said, “but it set me on the journey to where I am today.” Thank goodness it did.

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