Hooray for Healthy Hugo’sMay 6, 2011
The term “health food” used to be pretty much equated with “tasteless food.” Over the years the health food stigma has been greatly lessened, and chefs today are consistently proving that health food can also be delicious food. Nowhere is that more accurate than at Hugo’s, a long-time L.A. eatery with three locations in the area. With its incredible attention to using organic ingredients, zero trans-fats, fish from sustainable sources, hormone and antibiotic-free beef, and as a haven for vegetarians and vegans, Hugo’s is on the cutting edge of what may be an eventual food revolution. And the food is anything but tasteless.
Just about every menu item has an indication if it’s vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, or can be made to any of those specifications. For example, Hugo’s pasta dishes are already organic and vegan, but if you wish to go the gluten-free route, you can substitute the regular pasta for sweet potato noodles, or even kelp noodles. Yes, kelp. Want a gluten-free tortilla alternative? No problem. You can see how much thought and effort Hugo’s has put into creating a truly unique menu for people with all types of dietary concerns.
It is a large and varied menu, with appetizers like Asian spring rolls, green tamales, and vegan mac-n-cheese; there are salad offerings like the beet-quinoa salad and the kelp noodle salad; sandwiches and burgers include the mung beans and rice burrito, the avocado-hummus wrap, and the Hugo burger, featuring onions, chili, guacamole, and mushrooms; pasta dishes include the Pasta Victor with grilled chicken, garlic, sun dried tomato, corn, chilies, cilantro and a light chipotle-cream sauce (or get the Vegan Victor with vegan cream sauce and tofu), or try the creamy green risotto with organic leafy greens, broccolli, zucchini and asparagus blended with a creamy cashew and sunflower cheese sauce and spinach-basil pureé; entrées include selections like the Asian stir-fry, orange mustard chicken, turkey meatloaf, and Indian veggie patties.
Hugo’s has become famous for its breakfasts as well, and with items like the veggie frittata, a Bulgarian omelette, roasted pineapple-coconut pancakes, and Cinnamon Dream French toast, at some point we’ll need to head there in the morning. But last Friday our party of 4 (plus a child) was there for dinner, and we’d definitely go back for seconds.
We started with some adult beverages – Hugo’s wine and beer list has some great options, and their cocktail menu also has interesting items. The Studio City location does not have a hard liquor license, so many of the cocktails are made with Soju, a Korean rice wine, including the mojito. Despite not having any rum in it, it was still a good mojito, full of mint and lime.
The only appetizer we tried was the pozole, a traditional authentic Mexican soup/stew. The tomato-chili broth was loaded with peppers, onions and hominy, topped with cilantro. The flavors were phenomenal, and it had such a warm, comforting feel to it. This must be what they eat in Mexico instead of chicken soup.
For entrees, we tried the Cuban Sandwich, the pasta carbonara, the Tres Tacos, the Moroccan-Style Stew, and the kids’ cheese quesadilla. The only thing wrong with the Cuban Sandwich is its name – there is not one ingredient in Hugo’s version that appears on any traditional Cuban sandwich. Hugo’s contains grilled chicken breast (which our diner omitted and got tofu instead) with honey-chipotle sauce, fried plantains, goat cheese, mixed greens, tomatoes, and grilled red onions. Erroneous nomenclature aside, it was a beautiful sandwich. The grilled onions played perfectly with the honey chipotle sauce on the expertly-cooked grilled tofu, and the sweetness of the plaintains meshed with the creamy goat cheese in a delightful way. Again, not a Cuban sandwich – but a fantastic sandwich. It was served with delicious homemade potato chips.
The pasta carbonara is one of the few items on Hugo’s menu that might not be considered to be all that healthy, made with sautéed prosciutto, bacon and garlic, and then deglazed with white wine and finished with scallions, cream, Italian parsley and parmesan cheese. But they are doing something magical over at Hugo’s, because as rich and filling as this dish should be, Hugo’s managed to keep it relatively light and fresh. The saltiness of the prosciutto and bacon was not overpowering at all, and the subtle wine flavor gave the dish more complexity than traditional versions.
The Tres Tacos, which roughly translated means “Three Tacos,” featured three corn tortillas topped with your choice of main ingredient (chicken, steak, tofu or veggies), sautéed with organic black beans, corn, pico de gallo and roasted tomato chipotle sauce, and topped with guacamole. I went with the chicken, and was not disappointed. The large chunks of breast meat were tender and juicy, and had absorbed the flavor of the pico and the tomato chipotle sauce well. The guacamole tasted very fresh and was a welcome layer to the dish. The only thing I was hoping for was more spice, but our server seemingly read my mind, plopping down a bottle of hot sauce before I could ask for it. Now the dish was perfect. It was served with a small pile of Romaine lettuce in a light Caesar dressing.
The Moroccan-Style Stew contained butternut squash, carrots, potatoes, green beans, garbanzo beans, garlic and raisins in a slightly spicy Moroccan sauce, served with mint, yogurt, cucumbers, and quinoa. Cinnamon, cardamom, garlic and other flavors came through quite well, and the veggies were very fresh. Flavor-wise it was a little lacking; it could have used some more salt and definitely more spiciness, but overall, it was very good.
With just a tiny bit of room for dessert, we managed to wolf down two kinds of ice cream, a chocolate mousse, and a very unique pumpkin pie. There were other options like the brownie torte with fresh strawberries, the NY style blueberry cheesecake, and a mango sundae, but we were happy with our choices. The Vahlrona chocolate ice cream will satisfy the most devout choco-holic, and the Tahitian vanilla bean will do the same for vanilla-holics (if such a thing exists). The chocolate mousse was delicious; freshly made, it was light but very chocolatey. The pumpkin pie was made with ground clove, cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom in a coconut and pecan crust, and was topped with pumpkin seed brittle. This was the most interesting version of this classic dessert we’d ever tried – the seasonings were very tasty, giving a lot of depth to a dish not known for depth. The brittle on top was a terrific contrast in texture.
Prices at Hugo’s are slightly higher than average, but it does cost a bit more to use all natural, organic, fresh ingredients. Sandwiches and burgers range from $11-$14, pastas are $13-$16, and entrees are $13-$20. But when you leave a big meal not feeling like you have a bowling ball in your belly, and knowing that at least most of what you ate came from natural sources and was good for you, paying a little more is well worth it. We hope that more eateries follow Hugo’s example and create unique, flavorful, healthy dishes that still satisfy our American craving for comfort foods.
The Mouse House Kitchen gives Hugo’s 4 out of 5 stars!