Chef Chat

Chef Chat, Part 1: Ruben Ortega of Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe and the Story of How He Came to Houston

This is the first part of a three-part Chef Chat series. Come back to read parts two and three in this same space on Thursday and Friday.

In the Houston food world, everyone knows Hugo Ortega. The chef who started out as a dishwasher before falling in love with his restaurateur wife eventually opened a restaurant of his own, introducing regional Mexican cuisine to a city enamored of Tex-Mex.

This year, Ortega launched his own cookbook and earned his second nomination for Best Chef Southwest by the James Beard Foundation. And for people watching, they'll notice that everywhere he goes, he's accompanied by his younger brother, Ruben Ortega.

Whether it's a cooking competition, cookbook signing or a trip to New York City for the James Beard award, Ruben is right by his brother's side. This week, we put the spotlight on Hugo's lesser-known half as we sit down for a chat with chef Ruben Ortega.

EOW: Ruben, what do you do?

RO: (smiles michievously) Well, I actually work at Hugo's.

EOW: I think you do more than work at Hugo's.

RO: (laughs) I pretty much do everything at Hugo's. I do at Backstreet Cafe as well. I spend more time at Hugo's than at Backstreet. It goes both ways. Hugo [Ortega] and I split ourselves between the two.

EOW: Your brother Hugo has this famous story about how he got his start as a dishwasher at Backstreet. How did you get your start in the restaurant business?

RO: Well, I was working as a bar-back and prep and line cook in a small place called The Village in Cupertino, California. When my younger brother came to Houston, Hugo called me and said, "We have our little brother here; why don't you come here [to Houston] and help."

EOW: You guys were obviously born in Mexico. How did you get split up?

RO: Hugo came here first. And then I went to California because I was in college in Mexico City at that time. I wanted to come to the States and make some money, then go back and pay for college.

EOW: How old were you?

RO: I was 18 or 19.

EOW: Tell me about this culture of Mexicans coming to the States to make money so that they can pay for their lifestyle at home.

RO: It's quite common right now. I was actually reading an article in the Mexican newspaper online. And they were getting worried that the younger generation of Mexicans right now are leaving Mexico. On my mom and dad's side, they were from a ranch in a little town -- they grow corn, tomatoes, watermelon -- it was their day of life. And now, that generation is getting older and it's coming to an end, but the younger generation is leaving for the States, and there's no one to take over. I was talking to Susana Trilling from Oaxaca -- she has a couple of books; she's a good friend of ours -- she's American but she's been living in Oaxaca where she has a ranch and a cooking school, and she's like, "Ruben, it's really scary because there is no younger generation to take over this traditional work in agriculture. We are afraid that it's going to go away eventually." It's very common thing that younger people come to the States and try make money.

EOW: Why do you think that is? Is it because you can't make money in Mexico?

RO: Yes, because the way of life is very harsh in Mexico. With all the corruption and violence that is going on right now, the way of life is tough. It's all over Mexico. There's no middle class in Mexico anymore. I came here too young, but I never knew anybody that was middle class. At school, there were my friends that were rich, and we were the ones that were really poor. It is a harsh way of life. People survive and do amazing things, but it's hard.

EOW: So, let's talk about you. You went to California, you were obviously planning on going back to Mexico -- did you go back to Mexico?

RO: I came to Houston, then I met my wonderful first wife, Mary. I actually went back to Mexico because we were fixing our house and it was our little twin sisters' quinceañera. So we decided to go back even though we didn't have our papers -- Hugo had papers -- but me and my younger brother didn't.

EOW: How did you go back if you didn't have papers?

RO: (laughs) I don't know. It was a stupid thing to do. My girlfriend, Mary, at the time, she was really mad at me. She actually came back with me to meet my family -- and we were just dating -- this was back in '93.

EOW: What are the risks if you go back without papers?

RO: Well, there is no risk whatsoever; you go back and that's fine.

EOW: So you have a Mexican passport; they'll let you back to Mexico, but coming back to the U.S....

RO: You have to cross the border. (looks at me sheepishly, laughs) Actually, it was a funny story. I contacted this friend, Armando. And I ask him, "You told me once you know this guy who knows this passageway to the States from Arizona." And he called me back and said, "Yes, here's his name," So I get to the border, I contact this guy and I ask the guy, "What do I need to do to get the States?"

EOW: So when you get to the border, were you on foot, were you in the car, were you with your girlfriend?

RO: No, no, no, she was American; she just went back. She left me there in Mexico and she thought I was never coming back. And I took a little longer than I originally planned, so she was really freaking out. But actually, I crossed in one day. I just contacted this guy and told him I needed to get to Phoenix, and he's like, "Yeah, I'll take you. I'll charge you 50 bucks."

EOW: Fifty bucks? So what did you have to do?

RO: Nothing. I just got into his car, and we drove to Phoenix.

EOW: So he drove to Phoenix. Did you have to hide?

RO: No! We crossed the line walking.

EOW: You crossed the line walking? And so you weren't stopped?

RO: No! I was the luckiest man, the luckiest guy in the world! Actually, it was really fun. We stopped at MacDonald's right on the other side, we ate a Big Mac, and then we got into this car. This other guy came in, I gave him $150 bucks, I give the other guy $50 bucks, he went back to the Mexican side. This new guy drove me from the border to Phoenix. I just bought a plane ticket and went back to Houston. I'm the luckiest man in the world, I'm telling you.

EOW: This was 1993. And how long until you got your papers?

RO: I got back in 1993. I got my papers in 1994.

EOW: How come I hear it's so difficult?

RO: I don't know. Actually, I married my first wife in 1993 after I came back from Mexico. She was really mad at me for going back to Mexico without papers. She was like, "We're going to get married, we're gonna take care of your papers, and blah blah blah blah." I wasn't really worried about that. We were really in love, she was -- is -- an amazing woman. So we got married, we hired a lawyer, we put in an application. In six months, I was ready to do the interview with her. In '94 I got my papers, and nine years after that, I became a citizen, because the card lasts ten years, and right before that, I applied for citizenship. And after that, the rest is history. This would be ten years ago, right before we opened Hugo's.

Check back with us tomorrow as we talk more about Ruben's involvement with Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe.

Hugo's 1600 Westheimer Rd Tel: (713) 524-7744

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Mai Pham is a contributing freelance food writer and food critic for the Houston Press whose adventurous palate has taken her from Argentina to Thailand and everywhere in between -- Peru, Spain, Hong Kong and more -- in pursuit of the most memorable bite. Her work appears in numerous outlets at the local, state and national level, where she is also a luxury travel correspondent for Forbes Travel Guide.
Contact: Mai Pham