Chefs Hugo and Ruben Ortega: Soulful Masters of Mexican Cuisine

Chefs Hugo and Ruben Ortega: Soulful Masters of Mexican Cuisine
Penny De Los Santos

I met chefs Hugo and Ruben Ortega of Hugo's last week, and what I walked away knowing is that I want to spend a lot more time with these guys -- in Mexico tasting their memories. Chefs Hugo and Ruben are engaging, enchanting and extraordinary, and they're coming out with a cookbook.

I wondered why they chose now for the project, after 25 years in the business. The answer lies in their fascinating family history. The Ortegas' grandfather exchanged letters with General Zapata of Mexico. They have those letters in an attic, and when Chef Hugo found them, he knew that someone should be writing all that history, all those memories and stories. It would be a tragedy for those communications to be lost to time.

There were 25-plus years of culinary stories, flavors, memories and recipes that would be lost if Chef Hugo did not get them written down. So he and his brother, Chef Ruben, went on a journey through Mexico revisiting their memories, making a few new ones and collecting what would be the first cookbook of their careers. Hugo Ortega's Street Food of Mexico reads more like a journal than a cookbook. It takes the reader on a journey to the Ortega homeland and introduces us to Mexican street food.

Street food in Mexico is interesting. One could call it fast food, but there is nothing fast about it. Chef Hugo describes the mass migration to Mexico City everyday by the people that live outside the city. They are from all different regions of Mexico and all bring their regional specialties to the street. Some of those specialties take hours or days to prepare and cook. You can't make mole to order or cook a batch of pig's feet for tacos while your customer waits. These dishes are prepared well in advance and brought to the streets of Mexico City to sell to people who are in a hurry to grab a quick lunch or dinner.

Chef Hugo experienced something similar with the opening of Hugo's in 2002. They opened on a Thursday, served Thursday and Friday, and by Saturday at 8 p.m., had to close. They had run out of food and certainly could not quickly whip up a batch of mole or beef stew that takes two days to make. They learned quickly how much their food was loved and how much to prepare ahead of time.

Chef Ruben describes the scene on the street in Mexico City: "You will see the businessman dressed in a suit and tie sitting on the curb next to the guy in shorts and flip-flops eating a taco that took two days to prepare. They both know this, and their appreciation of it is obvious." The vendors' "spot" on the street is a matter of pride and history. It is not a first-come situation. The vendors respect and give deference to the history of someone's "spot." Chef Ruben says his and Ruben's book just scratches the surface of street food.

Their book is part of who Chef Hugo and Ruben are, and they feel it is their duty to tell the Houston community why and how they do what they do. "It is the memories that are important. We want people to remember forever. It is a very personal book, and we want to make our family very proud. We are passionate and want to try and tell the folklore of our native community to our home community." The U.S. doesn't really have an equivalent to Mexican street food. Chef Ruben says the only thing that comes close is food trucks, flea markets or Chinatown.

When asked if they ever dreamed of the success he and his brother have shared, Chef Hugo got very quiet for a moment. He took in what the question meant and said, "Success is a hard word. It's about the people. It has been a 25-year ordeal that happened with preparation and opportunity." His gratitude and humbleness were palpable. Chef Ruben and Hugo have new dreams and goals of exploring more of Mexican food and American cuisine at Backstreet Café because both represent their culture.

You might wonder if someone like Chef Hugo ever thinks about a Michelin Star. He has received his fair share of notable accolades, and it is not unrealistic to think of a Michelin Star being added to the list. Chef Hugo said, "It would be interesting, but we are proud of what we do regardless. We just respect the cuisine and if it happens, it happens." To frame just how humble and uninterested Chef Hugo is about striving for accolades, he had to ask his PR rep, Paula Murphy, if Michelin Stars were only European. The Ortegas cook because it is in their soul, and they want to share their stories through food, not for any awards.

Chef Hugo and Ruben Ortega in Mexico
Chef Hugo and Ruben Ortega in Mexico
Penny De Los Santos

When asked to talk about the best and worst parts of writing their book, Chef Hugo and Ruben both immediately said the best was the trip to Mexico. The photos in the book tell that story. Penny De Los Santos was the photographer, and she captured some truly candid moments of sheer joy on the chefs' faces.

The worst thing for Chef Ruben was how hectic it was in the kitchen when they were testing recipes. They used the Hugo's kitchen but didn't close the restaurant during that time. So the kitchen was prepping and cooking for the restaurant as well as Chef Hugo and Ruben prepping and cooking recipes for the book. Chef Hugo said, with a coy little smile, the only part he didn't like was worrying that it wouldn't sell. No need to worry about that. With signed copies available in the restaurant and on, the book is doing very well.

While the Ortega empire encompasses Hugo's, Backstreet Café and Prego's, they are not looking to open any other kind of restaurant any time soon. Chef Hugo said, "Cuando zapatero, hacer zapatos." (When you're a shoemaker, make shoes.)

Chef Hugo is always traveling to Mexico to learn and perfect his recipes. I asked him how he creates a new recipe, from inspiration to plate, and his answer was fascinating. He said he gets inspiration from travels and his family history, especially his grandmother. He then works out in his mind what the dish is going to taste and look like, then prepares it. I wondered how many versions he goes through before an inspiration becomes the recipe he envisioned. Chef Hugo said very matter of factly, "It's always the first version. I truly understand the cuisine." There was not a hint of arrogance, but the self-assuredness of someone who cooks from his soul and is very connected to his history.

Chef Ruben and Hugo both speak of their grandmother as their biggest inspiration. Delia, they said, was a proud woman that always dressed well. She had her hair done every day and wore lots of color. She was beautiful and patient. She taught the boys to respect seasonality. For example, September is for corn tamales, not April or July. Don't cook food out of its season. If you get a chance to talk to Chef Hugo or Ruben, ask them to tell you the pumpkin seed story from their grandmother. It speaks to her patience, and you can witness the pride beaming from them for Delia and her lessons.

We talked about their last meal, and Chef Ruben said he wants three different dishes: tacos with pig's feet, tacos with pig cheeks and his grandmother's mole poblano. Chef Hugo explained that he would have to be taken to Mexico for tacos with chicharron and guacamole and then brought back here to die. I hope these brothers live a long and healthy life, because I want to savor their food memories for a very long time. Pick up a copy of Hugo Ortega's Street Food of Mexico and read all about the Ortegas' history and the cuisine's history, then cook some pretty spectacular recipes. I have included three recipes from the book below. 

Aguachile (Shrimp marinated in lime juice) Makes 4 servings

(Note from chef Hugo Ortega: "Aguachile is a popular local dish in Ensenada that is sold at many of the market's puestos. It is a delicious ceviche of butterflied shrimp marinated in lime and accompanied with cucumber slices, which serve the role of the totopos.")

  • 1 pound medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, butterflied and dry
  • ¾ cup fresh lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped white onion
  • 1 tablespoon fresh key lime juice
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt plus more as needed
  • 1¼ teaspoons Mexican chili powder, divided
  • ¼ teaspoon dried Mexican oregano, crumbled
  • ½ cucumber

Instructions: Place shrimp in glass or ceramic bowl. Add lime juice. Make sure shrimp floats freely in lime juice to ensure thorough and even marinating. Cover with plastic and refrigerate for 12 to 15 minutes. Strain and discard lime juice. Transfer shrimp to clean glass bowl. Add onion and key lime juice, toss to coat. Add salt, 1 teaspoon chili powder and oregano, toss to combine. Chill before serving. Slice cucumber at a 45 degree angle, about ¼-inch thick.

Arrange along the edge of a large platter. Sprinkle with salt and remaining chili powder. Place aguachile in center. Pour remaining juices over cucumbers. Serve with extra cucumber slices and saltines on a separate plate to accompany.

Taquitos de Lengua (cow tongue taquitos) Makes 4 servings

  • 1 (2¾ pounds) cow tongue, cleaned, ready to cook
  • 2 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 2 banana leaves
  • 25 small tortillas, warm
  • ½ large onion, finely chopped
  • ½ small bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
  • 1 recipe salsa de jitomate y chile verde or habanero (recipes follow), optional

Instructions: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Combine salt with about 6 cups water and pour into a roasting pan. Wrap cow tongue in banana leaves and place on a roasting rack over the water. Place in oven, covered and steam until fork-tender, about 4 hours. Check water level every hour. Remove from oven, wrapped, and allow to rest 15 minutes. Remove leaves and discard. Peel outer layer of cow tongue, discard and chop the rest of the meat. Divide meat among the small tortillas. Top each taquito with 1 tablespoon each onion and cilantro. Serve with salsa de jitomate y chile verde or habanero.

Salsa de Jitomate y Chile Verde (tomato and serrano pepper salsa) Makes 1½ cups

  • 14 medium tomatoes, roasted, peeled
  • 2 whole serrano peppers, stemmed
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • ¼ cup corn oil
  • 1 small white onion, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Instructions: Put tomatoes, peppers and garlic in blender and purée to a smooth consistency. Place saucepan over medium heat, add corn oil to pan and preheat 2 minutes. Add onion and cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add tomato-pepper purée. Lower heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Add salt to taste. Remove from heat and cool completely before use or store.

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