August Meals

Houston should seriously consider adopting the siesta. Northern customs, like working from nine to five, are probably inappropriate for our climate anyway. In the major cities of Latin America, as in sunny Spain, people eat a big meal in the afternoon and then take a nap during the hottest part of the day. They return to work for a few hours and get off around eight, when it starts to cool. That's the way Backstreet Cafe (1103 South Shepherd, 713-521-2239) sous-chef David Ortega used to do it back home in Mexico City.

Q. Backstreet Cafe is known for its patio. Is anybody sitting out there in August?

A. Yes, but not until nine o'clock or so.

Q. Isn't that late to eat dinner?

A. Well, I'm from Mexico City, and that's a pretty normal time to eat there.

Q. But that's not dinner, is it?

A. No. In Mexico City, people eat the main meal of the day at around three in the afternoon.

Q. And then they take a siesta?

A. Right. And then at eight in the evening, after work, you pick up some fresh pan dulces, and you have them with hot chocolate while you watch television with your family. Or else you go out and have a snack at a cafe or a restaurant at nine or ten.

Q. What dishes are popular at Backstreet Cafe during the hot weather?

A. Well, our head chef, Hugo Ortega, has invented a cold avocado soup with ginger and crabmeat and a corn-jicama relish that is absolutely great.

Q. Any relation?

A. Yeah, he's my cousin.

Q. What else?

A. We have a scallop salad that's incredible. We sauté the scallops with a crust of Parmesan and almonds, and serve them lukewarm on a bed of greens with jicama and cold cantaloupe and a light garlic vinaigrette. The jicama gives it a nice crunch, and the cold cantaloupe and warm scallops are a great contrast. It's the perfect dish for a summer evening.

Q. What do you drink with a dish like that?

A. Sean Beck is our wine guy. You should talk to him.

(Sean Beck gets on the phone. He says a New Zealand Riesling from Allan Scott would be perfect with that salad; Scott used to be a winemaker at Cloudy Bay. Beck is also high on Bonny Doon's rose, Zind-Humbrecht Pinot d'Alsace and German Rieslings for summer quaffing.)

Q. Any other dishes come to mind for the summer?

A. Tuna with crab fingers and avocado-cilantro relish is pretty popular, too. We use the sushi-grade tuna, and we can cook it as rare as you like it. And then we have a seafood platter with salmon, lobster tail, grilled shrimp and scallops with a lemon butter and roasted pepper sauce that comes with couscous topped with salmon caviar.

Q. Is that the sort of thing you eat in Mexico City late at night?

A. No, not really, but actually we are opening a new restaurant serving authentic Mexican food pretty soon. I'm sure you'll be able to get something like that there.

Q. Really? Backstreet Cafe is opening a Mexican restaurant? Where will it be located?

A. Yes, it's the same owners as Backstreet Cafe, and it will be on Westheimer at Mandell. They are working on it now. It's going to be called Hugo's, so obviously my cousin is going to be the head chef.

Q. What part of Mexico City are you two from?

A. Well, actually our ancestors are from Puebla; our parents moved to Mexico City when we were kids.

Q. So you still think of yourself as a Poblano?

A. Absolutely. And my mother was very careful to preserve the cooking style of Puebla in our house.

Q. How would you describe Poblano cooking?

A. Chiles en nogada, traditional mole Poblano, of course, and we use the pitaya fruit a lot.

Q. That's the fruit of a cactus, but not the prickly pear, right?

A. Right, it's a wonderful fruit. We are hoping we can get some of these kinds of ingredients for the new restaurant.

Q. So will Hugo's serve Poblano cuisine?

A. No, authentic Mexican food from all over Mexico.

Q. So what does that mean? No chips and salsa, and no nachos, right?

A. I don't know about that.

Q. And no fajitas, and no margaritas?

A. I'm not sure. You have to ask Hugo.

Q. Well, you never had any of those things in Mexico City, did you?

A. No, not until recently. But now you can get margaritas all over Mexico City. They are very popular.

Q. Do they advertise them as authentic Tex-Mex cocktails down there?

A. No, but Texas and Mexico City are so close these days, I think people in Mexico City are getting used to Tex-Mex by now.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh