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Hugos feels like a ready-to-franchise concept that still needs fine tuning

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Tucked into the bottom corner of the slowly developing mixed-use building on bustling South Lamar Boulevard, a muted Hugos shrinks behind a veil of palm trees, flowers and a bank of wrap-around windows.    

Bright colors and thumping music break the glassy silence when you enter. A blue print of agave plants decorates the walls ringing the dining room and white tiles resembling waves hang from the ceiling. The aesthetic accomplishes two things: It reminds you that this is a restaurant that has made a commitment to tequila its mission (or its gimmick, depending on your level of skepticism), and it replicates the feel of an upscale taqueria at a resort. A resort during spring break.

The music pumping from the sound system during dinner one Saturday night could serve as the soundtrack of any dance club or Gold's Gym. Diners looking for respite from the noise that bounces off the polished concrete floors can escape to the massive outdoor deck that has more seating than the main dining room.

The latest addition to the Lamar dining scene, Hugos Restaurant y Tequila Bar is helmed by Magna Sampaio, who closed her eponymous Brazilian restaurant on Burnet Road last spring. As the tequila indicates, however, Hugos hems toward the flavors of Mexico rather than Brazil.

A luminescent wood-paneled tequila bar seems the perfect opportunity to indulge in a cigar, and Hugos offers a variety that has nothing to do with tobacco. Two duck cigars ($8) come in the form of small tortillas deep-fried and filled with tender confit duck and rich goat cheese. The flauta appetizers come alive with the zing of a drizzled habañero honey, and a lemony mayonnaise for dipping provides a creamy citrus calm. You could put 100 of these crunchy delights on a platter at a small party and watch them disappear in minutes.

The desire to ride a trend seems to be the only reason to name three empanadas "sliders" ($7), which is not to say the flaky pastries filled with shredded pork should feel like posers. A surprising touch, the accompanying mango mustard has enough complexity to make it the most popular condiment in your refrigerator. Though pan-seared, the crab cake ($8), lacked any mentionable crust or sizable pieces of lump crab meat. A cherry and red bell pepper coulis and cilantro pesto could not save the dish that tasted mostly like crab-flavored breading.

The cooling cilantro returns in a more welcome version as the vinaigrette dressing for the La Casa salad ($8). Scattered rounds of mission figs and deceptively spicy wheels of candied lemon give texture to the fresh, leafy greens, and no salad has ever been hindered by a lightly fried ball of goat cheese. A deep, rich broth gives soul to the chicken tortilla soup ($8) that is colored by confetti of diced vegetables.

Sandwiches and tacos are served throughout the day at Hugos, with the El Cubano ($7.50) being the best of the bunch. However, with better Cuban sandwiches available just down the same street (the Texas Cuban), that is a bit of a Pyrrhic victory. Despite the need for a greater serving of pulled pork, the pig-centric sandwich with its tart, from-the-jar pickles, gooey Swiss cheese and tangy mustard tastes like something an industrious college kid would whip up on his George Foreman grill. The fish tacos ($7.50) are more the result of a C-student with a Fry Daddy. The undersized piece of beer-battered fish looks lost at sea in a lukewarm store-bought tortilla, the odd tomato wedge, rosemary sprig and olive thrown in for color and filler.

One holdover from Sampaio's, the delicious chimichurri sauce, makes an appearance with the petite tender steak ($17.50). Parsley and garlic sing in the sauce that gives moisture to a cut of meat that was cooked just past medium. I asked for the steak cooked to the chef's preference, so the lack of any color on the inside of the medallions could be considered my mistake. The coffee-crusted pork chop ($15), however, was a different story. Dried inside and charred with a charcoal-like exterior that gave no hint of the bean, the pork chop was overcooked, likely beyond anyone's preference. A cherry sauce similar to the coulis served with the crab cakes was a nice accompaniment but one wasted on a dried hunk of meat.

The tomatillo and roja sauces similarly had difficulty redeeming the dueling enchiladas ($9.50). An unnecessary (and unmentioned) serving of watery and bitter queso drowned the smokiness of ancho chicken.

Some curiosities are welcome, however, such as the individual slices of tequila bread pudding ($6) that resembled moist and decadent slices of French toast. As for that tequila, yes, Hugos does have an embarrassment of riches. But the agave-infused offerings seem to be as much for show as for genuine appreciation.

We enjoyed the Agave Gallop ($25), one of five flights available, which began with a Herradura Silver and worked its way toward the warmth and fruitiness of the dark Chinaco Anejo. But we realized that the value proposition with the Gallop and a few of the others was out of whack. We could have gotten more for our buck by ordering full shots (instead of ¾-ounce servings) of tequila. And despite the rustic but artistic presentation on a specially carved paddle, the flights did nothing to enhance the food. If Hugos wants to use tequila to enhance the dining experience, they would be better served having individual dishes paired with different tequilas.

And therein lies Hugos' biggest flaw. It feels like a restaurant that has spent more time trying to perfect its ready-to-franchise personality (in fact, one server told us franchising was part of the bigger picture), when the focus should really be in the kitchen.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986

Hugos Restaurant y Tequila Bar

300 S. Lamar Blvd. 474-4846, hugosaustin.com

Rating: 6 out of 10

Hours:Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Prices: Appetizers $6 - $8. Handhelds (sandwiches and tacos) $7 - $14. Entrees $9.50 - $17.50

Notes:Lunch specials range from $5.99 to $7.99 and are available from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

What the rating means:The 10-point scale is an average of weighted scores for food, service, value, ambience and overall dining experience, with 10 being the best.

The Bottom Line:Probably best served as a place to grab a drink and appetizer, Hugos feels like a ready-to-franchise concept that needs more focus on its flagship.