Caracol: Doubling Down on Family and Ceviche

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Houston is a rambling, gambling town and this year Best of Houston celebrates those in the community who are taking a chance.

Hugo Ortega's story is truly one of rags to riches.

"In Mexico, we have a saying," he says. "'If you're born poor, you'll die poor.' I knew I wanted more from my life."

Otega moved to Houston from Mexico in 1984 and shared a small apartment with some friends, finding work as a dishwasher at a local bar and nightclub and slowly learning English. Things were looking up for the recent immigrant until his buddies decided to move to California at the same time he found himself out of work. With luck and the help of another friend, he found his way to Backstreet Cafe, a four-year-old restaurant owned by Tracy Vaught, a geologist turned restaurateur.

In Backstreet Kitchen, the 2013 Backstreet Cafe cookbook, Vaught writes of her struggles as a novice restaurant owner -- struggles that in some ways mirror those of Ortega.

"I ate out of the restaurant checkbook for several months and depended heavily on my geophysicist boyfriend to support me while I was working day and night trying to kick-start the business," she writes. "Inevitably, he found another girlfriend that would pay more attention to him, and I fell in love with one of my employees. My mother thought I was crazy. Some days, I wondered, too."

At the time Ortega was hired as a dishwasher, he had been homeless, sleeping in front of a Montrose grocery store. He barely spoke any English but was a tireless worker, and eventually he was promoted to busboy, then cook. Ortega and Vaught were in a relationship by then, and the restaurant was taking off, so Vaught helped him register and take classes in the Culinary Arts program at Houston Community College.

Ortega graduated from HCC, and his own cooking career soon blossomed. The couple married in 1994, six years after they'd met. Three years later their daughter Sophia was born, and the duo continued to expand their restaurant empire as well.

Vaught assumed ownership of Italian restaurant Prego in 1988, but with Ortega by her side, the two embarked on opening a restaurant dedicated to the type of cuisine Ortega grew up with. Hugo's debuted in 2002, and was an immediate success thanks to the comforting interior Mexican cuisine with dynamic flavors that Ortega had perfected both in Mexico and here in Houston.

"This is the restaurant that I have dreamed of opening ever since I started my career in the restaurant business, even though I never realized it," Ortega said when Hugo's opened. "I left Mexico for America as a teenager in search of a better life. Even though I was far from our home in Mexico City, I always carried Mexico in my heart."

Last year the duo opened Caracol, serving coastal Mexican cuisine. Ortega also was nominated for his second James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest. In spite of their continued success, Ortega and Vaught remain two of the most humble and hardworking members of the Houston culinary scene. They're a team, and though it hasn't always been easy to accomplish their goals, the duo has achieved all they set out to do, and more. And they've done it together.

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