Hugo: The Humble Magician

Hugo Ortega grew up in Mexico City and made his way across the border looking for better opportunities. He got a job washing dishes at Backstreet Cafe in 1987. Two years later, he signed up for the culinary program at Houston Community College. By 1992, he had become a line cook at Backstreet. The next year, he married Tracy Vaught, one of the owners.

Now, he is not only the head chef at Backstreet but also a partner in the eponymous Hugo's. The 180-seat Mexican restaurant at Westheimer and Mandell has become known as one of the best Mexican restaurants in the nation.

Ortega describes his cooking as the personal cuisine of a transplanted Mexican chef, avoiding any claims of Mexican authenticity. It's a brilliant strategy that leaves him free to improvise upscale dishes like his rustic roasted cabrito, pulled from the bone, wrapped in a banana leaf and artfully decorated with habanero salsa and a salad of crunchy cactus nopalitos. He also sidesteps the class-conscious snobbery of elite Mexican chefs who look down their noses at "peasant food." Instead, carnitas, tamales and other humble dishes of the Mexican market stalls undergo a Cinderella-like transformation in his restaurant that might remind you of Hugo's own life story.


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