Punched Fish

My father, God rest his soul, was a successful businessman who was used to the rough and tumble of competition.  He was no neophyte and was appropriately cynical about how the world really worked — with one exception.

Dad liked to eat out, but he was a bit naive about the truthfulness of the wait staff at restaurants.  At some point, he apparently had read an article disclosing that much of what was served as scallops in restaurants was not scallops at all, but rather fish that had been cut out into round pieces, seasoned and flavored like scallops, and served accordingly.  So, for years, if Dad saw scallops on the menu, he asked whether they were really scallops, or just “punched fish.”

I always liked that question, which conjured up images of pugilism under the sea, but I also wondered — did Dad really expect to get an honest answer?  If the menu listed it as scallops, what waiter would admit that it really wasn’t?  Dad’s question presupposed some very basic, and endearing, assumptions about human nature that you wouldn’t expect from someone in the business of selling cars.

I thought of Dad when I saw this article:  7 questions to ask before you eat that shrimp.  Questions about “punched fish” didn’t make the list.

Hugo’s In Houston

IMG_5483I like your basic Mexican restaurant.  I like the never-ending basket of chips and salsa, which I could eat until I explode.  I like the Mexican beer.  I like figuring out the combo plates, choosing between the various forms of tacos and enchiladas and burritos, always with refried beans (yum!) and Spanish rice (yuck!).

So, when I came to Houston and was invited to dinner at a place described as offering high-end Mexican fare, I was intrigued.  And after I finished my astonishingly fine meal at Hugo’s, I realized that my Midwestern understanding of Mexican cuisine was completely, horribly, grotesquely stunted.

The menu was extensive, and not a combo plate was in sight.  We began our feast with an excellent, reasonably priced bottle of wine and three dishes to share:  lechon, with pulled meat of suckling pig, tortillas, and habanero salsa; pulpo al carbon, grilled octopus with onions, peppers, and chipotle tomatillo sauce and tortillas; and carnitas de pato, duck tacos with tomatillo sauce.  All were excellent, but the duck tacos, with their killer sauce, were my favorite.

For my entree I took the recommendation of our waiter and tried the callo de hacha — pan-seared scallops over sweet corn bread — and suddenly I was extremely glad that we stopped sharing after the appetizer course.  The scallops were plump, tender, and perfectly prepared, with a nice crust; the cornbread and rajas con crema sauce were the perfect complement.  It was one of those meals where it was almost impossible to fight off the urge to start drooling and groaning like Homer Simpson after being presented with a platter of Lard Lad donuts.  It was just an incredible meal.

There’s lots to learn about the scope and extent of Mexican cooking.  I plan on continuing my education at Hugo’s the next time I’m in Houston.