El Hidalguense has more than its share of signs boasting of its glories. From the Houston Press alone, it's not only won multiple accolades for its cabrito, it was also once named best Mexican restaurant by the alt-weekly. But that latter victory took place in 2003. Two of the three awards for its goat go back more than a decade. Sadly, after my visit last week, I think it's safe to say the spit-roasting specialist won't be winning any awards any time soon.
The apparent drop in quality hasn't hurt attendance too much. The lunch crowd was vibrant, if not tightly packed. It was busy enough that it was difficult to signal a server, even when my dining partner realized she'd never been given a fork.
Fortunately, there was no cutlery necessary for our first taste. Even before we ordered, we were presented with a pair of free lamb taquitos. The thick corn wrappers were fried to the point of near impenetrability. I like to think that I have a pretty efficient set of choppers, but it took several attempts to take my first bite. At least there was the syrupy textured chile salsa on the side. It was as deep and rich as a mole negro, a much-needed wake-up call for the bland taquito.
Old photos I'd seen of Hidalguense's barbacoa de borrego were green with cilantro-flecked salsa verde. The plates also contained colorful rice and fresh-looking beans. What I got was the Charlie Brown Christmas tree equivalent, pictured above. Yes, I appreciated my side of gamy, hominy-filled lamb consommé, but it didn't make up for a small pile of meat (surely far less than half a pound) that almost certainly never touched a grain of salt, not to mention a tomatillo or squeeze of lime. The side of nopales, too, was depressingly plain Jane. At least there were the excellent handmade corn tortillas, soft, lightly browned and numerous enough to feed a party three or four times the size of mine.
But good tortillas couldn't compensate for the $27.99-sized hole in my credit card left by the cabrito asado. Though there's always some éclat when anything comes to the table sizzling, let alone a chunk of hard-to-find baby goat, the excitement was brief. The cut was as unseasoned as the lamb, not that there was much besides bone and tendon to taste. That's to be expected from as small an animal as a young goat, but nearly $28 was a high price to pay for only a few tasteless bites per person. The side of soupy, undistinguished charro beans did the dish no favors either, but they were better than the chunky, out-of-the-fridge-cold refried beans my dining partner ordered.
Another sacred cow (or goat?) has now been revealed, but I'm still hungry for a great barbacoa taco. The search is on!