It's not often that you go to a buffet and see a James Beard nomination certificate. In fact, Hugo Ortega has four, and is nominated again this year. We can only hope that the fifth time is the charm for Houston's monolith of Mexican cuisine when the winners are announced on May 2.
But the approval of a body of out-of-towners is really beside the point. What matters is that Ortega is one of the best chefs anywhere (I'm looking at you, Vegas) flexible enough to offer prize-worthy fare on a buffet. In fact, he has two, both at Hugo's and seafood-focused Caracol. Fourteen years in, the buffet at Hugo's is showing no signs of wear.
When I tried the brunch for the first time on Sunday, I did what I could to get a satisfactory photo of the chilaquiles, topped with over-easy eggs, but they went so fast the pic above is the best I could do.
Still, the ravenous crowd was just being reasonable. The tomatillo salsa that dressed the chips and braised chicken was nothing short of edible sunshine. I didn't even care if I got that final egg. (I did.)
Braised chicken also found a happy home stuffed into chiles and topped with creamy almond sauce. Looking at the menu later, I noted that at the Saturday plated brunch, a single chile relleno is $15. The buffet is $31 per guest, so theoretically, just eating two of the chiles would nearly cover the value of the meal.
I was overwhelmed by a glut of tamale options, all stuffed into a pot together and difficult to identify. One filled with lightly spiced fish that melted with the soft masa was my favorite, but a firmer one, sweet with pineapple, was uniquely wonderful in its own right.
Poached eggs in green chile sauce and grilled lamb chops in red chile sauce on the same plate? Works for me. So did my second plate, filled with carnitas and brisket, ready to be turned into tacos when rolled into still-hot, freshly made corn tortillas.
To ensure I got some roughage, I took advantage of the chile-bathed grilled carrots, squash and asparagus, as well as a Caesar salad dotted with jalapeños.
Did my body have any capacity to cram in Ruben Ortega's desserts? Of course not, but it had to be done. Warm churros with chocolate caliente weren't so much an option as a necessity. And I paired that chocolate with a little bit of practically everything: tres leches cake covered in peaks of meringue; moss-green pistachio cookies filled with raspberry jam; three kinds of chocolate cake, each richer than the last; and of course, airy cinnamon-flecked rice pudding.
If Henry VIII had been born an Aztec monarch instead of an English one, his feasting may well have looked something like my brunch on Sunday. And I'm sure even a trencherman like Henry would not have denied me the mighty nap that followed my efforts.