I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for Hugo’s, the decade-old restaurant in the heart of Houston’s hip Montrose district that has helped awaken palates raised on Tex-Mex to the complexities of interior Mexican fare. Hugo’s is where I first encountered Oaxacan-style, pan-sautéed grasshoppers (served with avocado, tomatillo salsa, and mini corn tortillas), and where I discovered the smoky allure of artisan mescal. Over the years and in the course of many visits, I’ve enjoyed the restaurant’s braised pork shoulder with mashed plantain bananas ($22), its amazing lentil cakes with strips of fire-roasted chiles ($8), and its roasted red snapper a la Veracruzana ($22), the latter a tangy fish dish prepared with tomatoes, olives, and capers. I like the historic yet somehow modern feel of the restaurant itself, too: Designed in 1925 by Austrian architect Joseph Finger (who also designed Houston’s Art Deco City Hall and many other structures throughout the city), the building is now blanketed in decades of ivy. Inside, exposed rose-colored brick, butter-colored walls displaying vintage matador paintings, and a polished-concrete bar stocked with spirits and wines from throughout the world make Hugo’s a topnotch spot for a meal or $5 margaritas during happy hour.
But I’m here at Hugo’s to taste the renowned hot chocolate—a rich and fragrant cup that speaks volumes about Latin American culture. Like corn, tomatoes, vanilla, and chiles, chocolate is native to Latin America—and it’s difficult to imagine Mexican food without it. When barely sweetened, its earthy and slightly bitter flavor adds depth to countless versions of Mexico’s iconic mole sauce (usually made with chiles, nuts, and chocolate), and of course it’s the star ingredient in various cakes and ice creams.
The word “chocolate” is said to derive from the Náhuatl words for fruit (xocotl) and water (atl). Chocolate served as currency throughout pre-Hispanic Mexico, and the basic process for making chocolate from cacao beans hasn’t changed much since Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortes reportedly enjoyed it with Aztec leader Moctezuma in 1519.
At Hugo’s, Chef Hugo Ortega and his brother Ruben, the restaurant’s pastry chef, make 60 to 75 pounds of chocolate each week using cacao beans imported from the Mexican states of Tabasco, Veracruz, and Oaxaca. “At first, people thought we were crazy to make our own chocolate, but the process is simple,” says Ruben. “We toast the cacao beans on a griddle called a comal until they pop like corn; that’s the sign they’re getting toasty. Then we pass them through a rustic stone grinder that we brought from Oaxaca—and then we add vanilla, sugar, and cinnamon. Then we grind it again.” The result, a viscous yet slightly crunchy, almost-black paste, is then pressed into round wooden molds for use in the restaurant. Hugo’s also sells its chocolate tablets ($8 for enough to make five cups of hot chocolate) for home use.
I can’t imagine that hot chocolate is a popular item on the restaurant’s summertime menu, but the Ortegas assure me that it is. “We have it on our dessert menu year-round,” Hugo says. “We serve it with churros [think funnel cakes, but in strips] and ice cream, which we also make ourselves.” Of course, you can also order a simple cup of hot chocolate ($3.50), and during the restaurant’s popular Sunday-brunch buffet ($29), a simmering clay pot of hot chocolate tempts diners as part of a sweets spread that also includes flan, bread pudding, and pastel de chocolate al chipotle, a dark-chocolate cake infused with the smoky heat of chipotle peppers.
“Growing up in Mexico City, we’d often go visit our grandmother, who lived in the mountains between Oaxaca and Puebla,” says Hugo. “ I can see her making chocolate on a comal, and then grinding it by hand, and that black, saucy paste coming from the beans. She sold her chocolate in the market, just the way the Aztecs used to do.”
With 500 years of chocolate history on my mind, I dunk the crunchy end of a hot churro into my cup of chocolate. Dessert-sweet and rich with whole milk, fragrant with cinnamon and vanilla, and frothy on top, it tastes like an exotic chocolate bar melting on my tongue. “At home, you can make it with water instead of milk,” says Ruben with a wink. “But it won’t be nearly as good.”
So back home in Austin, I wait impatiently for the first cool snap in October to try to approximate the Hugo’s hot chocolate experience. I bring five cups of milk to a gentle simmer, unwrap my chocolate tablet, and let it dissolve in the hot milk. With a blender, I could make the chocolate frothy, but a whisk is handy and works almost as well. Served in petite coffee cups, it’s a satisfying, sweet end to a meal. With a bit of Kahlúa, it’s a sophisticated nightcap—chocolate with a kick.
I imagine Moctezuma—allegedly no stranger to post-prandial pleasures— would approve.