DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS CULINARY TOUR WITH HUGO AND RUBEN ORTEGA

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Día de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — is a Mexican holiday celebrated on November 1 and 2.  It’s a time to pray for and remember deceased friends and family.  Yesterday I went on a Day of the Dead Houston Culinary Tour, conducted by The Wave in partnership with the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.  The tour was led by Chef Hugo Ortega (4-time James Beard nominee) and his brother, pastry chef Ruben Ortega.  (Their restaurants — Hugo’s, Caracol, and Backstreet Cafe, are among our favorites.)

The first stop on the tour was Casa Ramirez, located at 241 W. 19th Street, a charming Mexican folk art gallery owned by Macario and Chrissie Ramirez, which had devoted much of the shop’s space to commemorating Día de los Muertos.

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Inside, there was a community altar honoring children who had died, as well as several personal altars in memory of friends and family of the owners.  The altars typically feature favorite foods and personal items of the deceased.

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Community altar

The owners’ personal altars 

There were loads of grinning skeletons in all shapes and sizes, from huge paper maché skulls to intricately detailed ceramic skeletons:

There were colorful sugar skulls (the shop also sells molds for you to make your own, and conducts sugar skull workshops):

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You can also get Lucha Libre masks (which are pretty scary) at Casa Ramirez (because I know you were wondering where you can buy them):

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Before we left, we enjoyed Mexican Coke, Topo Chico, and tamales (it’s a culinary tour, after all).

Our next stop was El Bolillo Bakery, 2517 Airline Dr., a Mexican bakery whose namesake — the bolillo — “is one of the staple breads for the hispanic community.”

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We were treated to a variety of sweet rolls, including pan de muerto, a traditional Día de los Muertos sweet roll dusted with sugar.  We had enough time to buy some goodies to bring home.  Grab a tray and tongs, and good luck trying to pick from the dazzling selection of baked goods:

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And check out the Day of the Dead makeup on the young lady behind me in line — fabulous, no?

IMG_7044 From there we crossed the street to Canino Produce, at 2520 Airline Dr.  004

I’ve been here before (click here for prior blog post about Canino Produce), but that didn’t mean there wasn’t anything new to see, like these spiny chayote squashes:

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Or these, which I was told were tomatoes (I’m skeptical): IMG_7047 And beautiful dragon fruits: IMG_7048 There were also lots of booths with marigolds for sale. This is because it’s believed that the spirits of the deceased visit the living during Día de los Muertos, and marigolds help guide the spirits to their altars with their bright colors and unique scent. IMG_7049

See the skulls photobombing the picture?

There was also a bounty of new crop Texas pecans, and the pecan-cracking machines were hard at work:

Next stop was the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, located at 2704 Navigation.  The restaurant was founded in 1973 by Ninfa Laurenzo (“Mama Ninfa”), who is widely credited with creating the national craze for fajitas by stuffing “chargrilled sliced beef into a handmade flour tortilla.”  Although the Ninfa’s chain no longer exists, the original on Navigation still serves up “the best Mexican food in Texas since Texas was in Mexico.”™

Chef Alex Padilla served up some great food, including a squash soup shooter, barbecued crabs (messy, but so worth it), and cabrito tacos:

And as I learned, there’s always room for flan (sorry Jell-O): IMG_7060

There was a final stop at Lawndale Art Center, 4912 Main St. to see some retablos, but my friends and I needed to get back, so we bailed on that part of the tour.

All in all, it was an interesting tour.  Hugo and Ruben Ortega were gracious guides, and I left knowing a lot more about Día de los Muertos than I knew when we started the tour.  Maybe next year I’ll construct my own altar to honor my dearly departed, and I’m definitely gonna check out the sugar skull workshop.

2 thoughts on “DÍA DE LOS MUERTOS CULINARY TOUR WITH HUGO AND RUBEN ORTEGA

  1. I love this post! I am so sorry that the Ninfa’s chain no longer exists. I’ve eaten lots of tacos al carbon and drank many Ninfaritas there in my younger days. Glad to know the original still exists. My next trip to Houston, let’s take a field trip.

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