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Southern Comfort

After biting into Lanelle Young's sweet-potato French fries--such caramelized confections they should be served in a candy dish--you'd swear she was born and bred in a part of the country where the humidity is thicker than split-pea soup and the unrelenting sun makes a body feel as Southern-fried as a flour-coated flank steak plunked in sizzling oil. And after talking with her on the phone, you're sure of it. Young peppers her conversation with the word "honey"--as in, "Honey, I come from a great family of cooks"--and her voice exudes the kind of warm, syrupy friendliness that always seems on the verge of matter-of-factly confiding that her cousin Elroy just got some girl knocked up.

But it turns out the head chef at Hugo's is originally from Minnesota. "My family owned their own places," she confesses, "and I started working in them when I was about six." After that came some hard time cooking at a California bed-and-breakfast for ten years and another stint in Minnesota before Young finally moved to Denver six years ago. Here she's worked for Three Tomatoes catering and both Al Fresco and the European Cafe; she also helped open Cafe Berlin and assisted a food service for elderly and handicapped shut-ins. Then, this past January, she heard that veteran Denver restaurateur David French needed someone to help him open up a little place on 17th Avenue--and a little place was just what she needed. "Honey, I'm telling you, this line of work gets hard on you after a while," she explains. "I put in my eighty hours a week when we opened up, but you just can't keep that up for very long."

First, though, she had to convince French that she was the woman for the job by presenting a sample menu, entirely of her own creation, without so much as a hint from him on which direction to head in terms of cuisine and general style. Obviously, Young guessed right: French and company so liked her roster of innovative, contemporary, Southern-inspired dishes that her sample menu was printed almost verbatim for opening day.

The gutsy food offerings fit right in with the new design of the space, which once housed Acappella's and then suffered through assorted incarnations including a crab shack and a piano bar. French, whose Hornet is still going gangbusters on South Broadway, had been looking for something smaller, and the cozy 17th Avenue spot seemed to fit the bill. He found his minor partners, Brock McKinley (who also serves as the restaurant's general manager) and McKinley's cousin Charles Shively, in a University of Colorado scholarship program that pushes community projects (French is on the board). The trio clicked, then got to work. For the decor concept, they hired a professional design company that came up with a cosmopolitan interior--a sharp, geometric motif that contrasts a grape hue with terra cotta, mustard, black and cream--that doesn't quite match the neighborhoody exterior.

But that's all right. For more casual dining, there's still the covered patio-cum-biergarten out back and a sunny set of umbrella-topped tables out front; Hugo's offers periodic neighborhood parties, mailing out postcards that invite nearby residents in for $1 drafts, wings and brats. And somehow, even the modern-looking dining room has retained its old-time, chummy feel--a feeling the friendly staff does its best to emphasize.

But Hugo's best argument is Young's food. She's tweaked the offerings a bit since the opening--the kitchen's dropped the labor-intensive, winter-hearty meatloaf sandwich I'd liked so much--but the dishes still possess a certain downhome spirit. And some of her specialties are pure Southern comfort. For instance, Young knows how to fry the hell out of a catfish, as evidenced by the fried-catfish entree ($7.95). A mess of big ol' fillets had been heavily armored with a mixture of seasonings and cornmeal, a coating so crisp that it held the fish in the shape it took during frying, leaving one partly vertical, twisted piece looking like a food sculpture. But we didn't care what it looked like, because it tasted so good: fresh, juicy cat in a spicy, crunchy skin. A huge side of the sweet-potato fries--thin, chewy and sugary--and half a large ear of corn dotted with blackened, roasty kernels made this a bargain meal, well-rounded and oh-so-satisfying.

The Southern-fried chicken ($8.95) gave the catfish a run for its money--and flavor. Three pieces of moist, oily bird--both white and dark meat--came in crispy, well-seasoned jackets of what looked like a variety of crumbs that had fused into a shell. This time we'd chosen a side of the roasted-garlic mashed potatoes (in addition to the sweet-potato fries, Hugo's offers above-average French fries), and for once got what we'd been hoping for: a mountain of skin-included, hand-mashed spuds teeming with roasted garlic. Not raw garlic, not bitter, overcooked garlic, but garlic roasted until its insides turned into butter and its bite mellowed without losing any muscle.

The stinking rose is one of Young's favorite ingredients, as we discovered on a second visit to Hugo's. For starters, there was the roasted-garlic soup ($2.95 a cup), for which Young used the same thorough roasting to coax the most out of the cloves before she pureed them into a thin, semi-creamy near-liquid that was nothing but garlic, garlic and more garlic. Then came the Caesar salad ($5.95), with its somewhat milder garlic and significantly milder-than-usual anchovy. McKinley said they decided to bow to popular tastes and throw back much of the traditional fishiness, but a good, made-from-scratch, no-gooey-Miracle-Whip dressing more than made up for the loss of some anchovies.

And Hugo's doesn't skimp on other tastes. I was fully prepared to hate the sweet sauce on the six "mahogany" wings ($5.95), since the first whiff as I raised a crisp-skinned limb was that of maple syrup. But two wings into the pile I was ordering another round, because the brown-sugary coating on these suckers (they really are mahogany-colored) was addictive. "My ex-husband came up with those," Young admits, adding that while he's not her honey anymore, they're still friends. She didn't say if he was the one who suggested pairing the wings with a blue-cheese dipping sauce, but I'd ditch it if I were her: The salty bite detracted from the sweetness of the wings. Ranch dressing is another option, Young says; that might be a better match for the strange but wonderful wings.

Another dish that benefited from Young's sweet tooth--she's also a former pastry chef--was an order of baby back ribs ($6.95 for a half-rack) that came swaddled in a blanket of sticky, molasses-thick barbecue sauce. On one visit the ribs were a little on the dry side, on another they were succulent--but both times they had plenty of those brittle, caramelized edges just made for nibbling. The sauce, though, was what really made the ribs: I'd lick its bold sweetness off fingers, forks, you name it.

Young's dishes are usually so vividly flavored that I was surprised to find a few dullards in the lineup. The shrimp quesadilla ($6.95) was overpriced and no more than okay-tasting: a mere smattering of shrimp scraps in a mix of cheddar and Jack cheeses, jalapeno flakes and diced onions and tomatoes sandwiched thinly between two tortillas--one of them burned. An order of fish-and-chips ($7.95) brought bland, watery cod floundering in a shell of beer batter that had no flavor beyond oil residue from the deep-fryer. The batter would have gotten a boost from cayenne; Young says it's supposed to be in there, but I didn't taste any. You couldn't miss the cayenne in the fish tacos ($8.95), though: A hefty dusting covered the grilled fish bits that had been soaked in (too much) lemon juice. The fish had no layers of flavor beyond the cayenne and citrus--not even a hint of grilling--and the usual accessories of cheddar cheese, tomato and lettuce didn't add much to the dull tacos. At least the lackluster calamari ($6.95), cloaked in a dull, crumbly batter, came with a potent chipotle aioli that added some zip.

I later learned that one of my visits--the one where the meal was most disappointing--coincided with Young's mid-afternoon break. You can't blame her for needing one; she'd been working a double shift that day and left the kitchen to her staff after lunch in order to regroup for dinner. Evidently, they're not following her instructions as closely as they should. They need to listen to Young.

I, for one, could listen to her all day. "Now, honey, don't you be too heavy on the negative," she says as she ends our telephone conversation. No problem, honey. Just keep doing your Southern belle imitation in Hugo's kitchen, and the mouth will rise again.

Hugo's, 1336 East 17th Avenue, 863-8252. Hours: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 4-10 p.m. Sunday.

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