Evolution of a Watering Hole

Once upon a time, the Backstreet Cafe rarely entered my mind unless someone said, "It's such a beautiful day, why don't we eat outside?" Then and only then would Backstreet's quirky tandoori chicken sandwich and dependable salade Nicoise reel me toward the funky vintage house with the tricky access, stashed on an arcane side street where Shepherd Drive curves toward Allen Parkway. Its shady, wood-fenced courtyard beckoned like some friend's raffish backyard, the umbrellas and white patio furniture a bit shabby, the vibe a bit Decaying Gulf Coast, the food a bit better than it had to be.

Lately, something's changed: there are Backstreet dishes I crave even when the weather's foul, sauces so inviting I find myself eating them straight, with a spoon. There's a new seriousness in the details, from breadbaskets piled with rolls baked to the specifications of red-hot Katie Rafferty (late of the Quilted Toque) to one of the precious few Houston dessert trays worth looking at. And amid some lingering aggravations, there's a sense that what began as an after-work hangout and became an al fresco staple is finally turning into a real restaurant.

At long last, the limitations imposed by a pint-sized kitchen will soon be eased; backstage renovations that will give chef Hugo Ortega room to grow are under way. The eclectic menu, developed by the talented John Watt -- Backstreet owner Tracy Vaught's chef-partner at Prego in the Rice Village -- has never been more appealing. And while the quality can be erratic, the high points here are very high indeed.

Just try to resist the fried green tomato salad, in which stemmy, emerald arugula wears a vinaigrette that has an almost winy pungency. Its crisp wheels of cornmeal-crusted tomato hide a subtle film of melted romano cheese; long slabs of grilled portobello mushroom, chopped pecans and discreet little crumbles of gorgonzola keep up the interest level. On the other end of the menu, dessert chef Ruben Ortega's bread pudding looks impossibly cosmetic, tastes implausibly good: a plump, velvety round studded with golden raisins and sporting a whipped-cream cloud, it rises above a pale-gold lake of whiskey-butter sauce so graceful and insidious that you're tempted to spoon it up like soup.

In between? Plenty of ups amid the downs. Hugo Ortega, a native of Mexico City, has brought a south-of-the-border sensibility to Backstreet's modern Mediterranean slant, not to mention a Horatio Alger mythos. (The up-from-the-bootstraps saga of Hugo -- now married to Backstreet owner Vaught -- and his brother Ruben is second only to the La family's Kim Son success story as the Great Houston Restaurant Parable.) Ortega's roots show in the superb portobello mushroom quesadillas that are a recent menu addition, their pastry-like shells delicately crisp and layery, their molten interiors zapped with lively basil vinaigrette. Everybody has to serve a quesadilla these days; if only everybody served one this good.

That quesadilla shows up again on Backstreet's so-called "El Plato Combinado Famoso," a Mexican combination plate that exhibits many of the restaurant's current strengths and weaknesses. There's a great little boneless grilled quail, nicely marinated, but why gussy it up with a crabmeat-and-corn stuffing? Black-bean tamales sound interesting, but are disconcertingly gray and oddly musty-tasting. Good marks for an enchilada of smoked chicken and diced potato, though; and extra credit for effort on a curious tostada in which fresh melon and jicama coexist with smoked shrimp. The overall effect is too hyperactive for its own good -- a syndrome that's a problem at Backstreet, where dishes and platters sometimes collapse under the weight of their many elements.

The attractive-sounding "Spectacular Vegetarian Platter" is a perfect example. An overt nod to Ruggles' superabundant vegetable plate, the Backstreet version seems overly starchy (would you believe pleasant corn pudding and unthrilling polenta and ravioli and musty-tasting cous cous timbale?). A Japanese stuffed eggplant cries out for salt or a vinaigrette. And all too soon, the platter's low-key squash ratatouille, grilled red peppers and mushrooms start running together in a confusing jumble, the best of intentions having gone awry.

When one of Backstreet's busy notions works, however, the results can be spectacular. Sturdy ravioli half-moons with a faintly smoky, blessedly ungummy chicken filling arrive in a soup bowl full of exuberantly tart, buttery broth. Dark olives and intense, oven-dried tomatoes bob in this delicious sea. No sense wasting a single drop, especially when there are pillowy rosemary rolls at hand, their dense, milky texture reminiscent of a very fine potato bread.

These rolls are not the only legacy of baker Katie Rafferty's consultancy here last fall. Backstreet's panini are now housed on Rafferty-style focaccia bread, including a grilled-tuna version that would be absolutely swell if its sog factor were conquered. (Surely there's a way to arrange its red peppers and black-olive tapenade so that the bread maintains its integrity.) Special sandwich bonus: a vibrant white-bean-and-tomato salad heaped over three skinny, greens-filled ravioli with a satisfyingly chewy texture.

This is joyous stuff, so why doesn't it work better as an entree unto itself? Ravioli Provence is stuffed with the same field greens, ensconced on the same nicely bitter arugula salad, showered with the same zesty white beans and tomatoes; but by the time peppered goat cheese and heaps of ratatouille enter the equation, there is too much happening on the plate. And why has the texture of the unusual filling gone from grown-up to baby-foodish? Perhaps time, and a larger kitchen, will provide the answers to these vexing questions.

Perhaps time will also mend the greasy sesame-crusted oysters in their strangely listless lemon-butter sauce. Or the woefully timid Caesar salad that bears scarcely a hint of its advertised roasted garlic. And it may even out the quality of one of Backstreet's most arresting dishes: a sophisticated roasted poblano pepper soup that could hold its own in a far more expensive restaurant. One night this buoyant, creamy broth may be perfectly balanced, shot through with earthy poblano flavor and a heat that accumulates slowly, offset by a striking smoked-chicken-and-apple sausage. Another night, this soup may be so chile-hot that only those of very stout palate need apply. Is anybody tasting back there in the kitchen?

No complaints about the dessert course here. The rough iron tray that displays Ruben Ortega's gorgeous and ornate creations is a continuing source of wonderment. His lemon-and-hazelnut bombe must be seen and tasted to be believed: almost Viennese in its opulence, the key to this chocolate-covered dome of intensely nutty hazelnut mousse is a ribbon of tart lemon between two layers of mild-chocolate sponge. The dessert doesn't come together until you fork down through the high dome to the lemon; then its genius pops into focus.

Ruben Ortega could give a seminar to other local restaurants on how to compose a dessert tray that escapes the prevailing waxen, moribund aesthetic. You see Ortega's desserts and actually want to order them instead of wanting to flee. This is local food news on the order of man bites dog. Honor is due.

While the kitchen expansion proceeds this spring, perhaps consideration might be given to a few other design flaws. Backstreet's persimmon-walled dining room with its stark wooden tables and chairs has a slightly barren look and could use a lighting redo -- particularly considering a very glary sconce that illuminates a grubby door to the restrooms all too well. And couldn't something be done to better separate the waiting weekend crowds from the dining room? A skimpy railing is all that keeps the jostling throng in the bar/foyer from falling onto the inside tables. It's not enough. Especially with the food here on an upswing.

Backstreet Cafe, 1103 South Shepherd, 521-2239.

Backstreet: roasted poblano soup, $4.95; fried green tomato salad, $5.50; smoked chicken ravioli, $8.95; bread pudding with whiskey-butter sauce, $4.50.

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