Explore The Cuisine of Jalisco With a Special Limited Menu at Hugo’s
Jalisco is the home of tequila, vibrant ingredients and charrería (Mexico’s national sport, which is similar to rodeo). Situated on the central western coast of Mexico, Jalisco is also becoming a popular culinary destination. That’s partially thanks to the scenic terrain of woods, beaches, plains and lakes. Jalisco’s cuisine is refined but there is a simplicity about it, too. That particular take on regional cuisine made Jalisco the perfect choice for this month’s spotlight menu at Hugo’s, Tracy Vaught and James Beard Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega’s Montrose restaurant at 1600 Westheimer.
According to Manuel Ponce, a manager at Hugo’s, Jalisco takes culinary influences from neighboring states and streamlines those into a refined cuisine that’s unique to the area. A mole from Oaxaca can have upwards of 30 ingredients, whereas a birria, a rich meat stew from Jalisco, has closer to ten. The more streamlined dishes work well in the current environment, where many restaurants have been operating with pared-down menus due to the logistics of navigating the COVID-19 crisis — which include inconsistent availability of meat and seafood.
Ortega’s mission has long been to show Houston that Mexican food is a complex cuisine with many regional specialties and variations. It is more than the ground beef, queso and cheese that is often association with Tex-Mex restaurant fare. While Hugo’s serves dishes from all over Mexico, Xochi, its sister restaurant, focuses on Oaxaca, the land of seven moles. Xochi has yet to reopen after the shutdown caused by COVID-19, so the highly creative chefs at Hugo’s decided to honor the state with a menu in May that highlighted Oaxacan cuisine. For June, Ponce, who was raised in Jalisco, came up with the idea to spotlight the food of that region. In addition, Chefs Epifanio Rosas and Beatriz Martinez also contributed to the Jalisco menu. The result is a refined, four-course meal that is only $45.
The meal begins with aguachile, a traditionally spicy ceviche. Hugo’s has dialed back the heat of its Aguachile de Mango and Habanero to a medium burn. The habanero-marinated shrimp is balanced with mango purée, cucumber and avocado. Served alongside are corn tortilla chips, made from scratch all the way down to the nixtamalization of the corn (an ancient practice that renders corn into masa). Though this aguachile may not be as spicy as some served in Mexico, the large bottle of cool water provided is still a necessity.
The second course is Hugo’s version, Sope de Chicharron, which mixes the housemade masa with plantain. The resulting dough is then shaped into a little boat, which are then filled with chicharron (pork skins) cooked in tomatillo sauce — the acid from the tomatillos tames the fattiness of the chicharron. So does the ample serving of pico de gallo.
Tender boneless lamb shines in the entrée, Birria Estilo Jalisco, a traditional dish in Jalisco that is usually reserved for special occasions. The lamb takes on the quality of barbecued burnt-ends; smoky with a hint of sweet and cuttable with a spoon. The broth resembles a refined guisada or chili elevated with ancho and guajillo chiles and a hint of cinnamon. It is served with housemade corn tortillas, since licking bowls is still frowned upon in our culture.
To top everything off, the Picones is an effervescent, not-too-sweet dessert. Chef Paula Gutierrez’s version of this Mexican cookie is a choux pastry with a concha cookie-style topping, which is delightfully lighter than a typical picone, which is a specialty of the region. Dulce de leche pastry cream is wedged between the cookies, and vanilla ice cream is served alongside this memorable dessert.
Off-menu, but highly recommended, is Sean Beck’s cocktail made with H-Town Restaurant Group’s proprietary Tesoro Tequila. It is a tequila that Ponce helped choose from the distillery, which is located east of Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco. The tequila is blended with Aperol, lime and the juice of guayabera, an apple-like fruit. It’s a not-too-boozy way to compliment this meal.
The Jalisco dinner is only available through the end of June for dine-in and take-out. After that, Hugo’s will spotlight Puebla. Since Hugo Ortega is from that region, it is likely that he’ll take the lead on developing the menu.
Hopefully, Hugo’s will keep these interesting, visually appealing and flavorful regional menus going after that. It’s a great way to explore cuisines in places where Americans are currently restricted from traveling due to the coronavirus pandemic. Clearly, the chefs at H-Town Restaurant Group are excited about the idea — and when chefs get excited it’s a good idea to pull up a chair.