"Thirty years ago, I took one huge leap of faith that completely changed the course of my life forever, and with it the course of many other lives. Thirty years ago, I opened Backstreet Cafe."
Thus begins restaurateur Tracy Vaught's introduction to Backstreet Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes from Our Neighborhood Cafe, the Backstreet Cafe cookbook. The book was published in 2013, so Backstreet Cafe is now in its 31st year, but the recipes included in the cookbook are timeless.
Together with Hugo Ortega, then a dishwasher who later became her husband and a James Beard Award-nominated chef, Vaught has created a Houston restaurant mini-empire that now includes Hugo's and Caracol, as well as a share in Prego. The Backstreet Cafe cookbook reflects the unique history of their journey together and the journeys of the various employees of Backstreet Cafe, some of whom have been there since the beginning.
Part cookbook, part history book, part coffee table book, this volume represents all that Backstreet Cafe was and is, with beautiful photographs, classic seasonal recipes and a whole lot of background information to make readers feel like they, too, are part of the Backstreet family.
Recipes or food porn: Both. The recipes are tried and true and have been used at Backstreet Cafe for years. Got a favorite item on the menu? You'll probably be able to recreate it at home with a recipe in this book. The photographs, by Kenn Stearns, are also lovely and mouthwatering and do ultimate justice to the great recipes depicted. The book also contains dozens of archival photographs of the Backstreet Cafe gang just starting out, family photos from Vaught and Ortega, and images of customers and friends who have supported the restaurant through the years, all woven together in seamless collages.
Ease of use: The cookbook is divided by season, rather than course of the meal as many cookbooks are. There's a brief section on the history of Backstreet Cafe, followed by a section of Spring/Summer recipes that is itself divided into "Beginnings," "Soups," "Salads and Sides," "Main Dishes" and "Desserts." The Fall/Winter section is broken up in the same way, followed by brunch recipes and drinks and bar snacks.
This is not a customary way to break up a cookbook, but I like that I can search more for the type of food that I'm feeling like eating seasonally--light and cool versus rich and heavy--rather than just searching through a sea of entrées. There's also an index, so if you're looking for something very specific, that would be the place to go.
In terms of the recipes themselves, each is contained on one page or less, meaning they're not super advanced. The instructions are written clearly, and I think a moderately comfortable home cook would have no issues following the directions and achieving success with these recipes.
Difficulty of finding ingredients: Backstreet Cafe takes pride in using local ingredients whenever possible, so everything included in the recipes should be fairly readily available in Houston. The recipes are upscale American cuisine with a few exotic elements, but don't feature any proteins or spices you'd be unable to find at a grocery store.
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Production value: The book has a padded cover for an extra luxe feeling, and most of the 120 recipes include full-color photographs of the food. It's pretty enough to be a coffee table book for someone less interested in cooking and more interested in learning the history of a Houston institution while drooling over beautiful images of Backstreet Cafe dishes.
Recipes I want to try: Backstreet Cafe's stuffed poached pear salad is one of the best salads in town, so that's on my list to try, and the recipe looks fairly simple. I'm also fairly enamored by the pumpkin cheesecake with a pumpkin reduction and chocolate cream topping. I'm most excited about the drink recipes, provided by sommelier and beverage director Sean Beck. This section even includes a recipe for spicy homemade bloody mary mix.
Verdict: Like the Cordúa family cookbook, this volume would make a great gift for someone new to Houston or unfamiliar with Houston's oldest and most beloved restaurants, because it provides a slice of life into our local food culture.
Stats: Backstreet Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes from Our Neighborhood Cafe By Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega with Sean Beck and Ruben Ortega Photography by Kenn Stearns $34.95 120 recipes 256 pages