That Sneaky Tex-Mex Camel

The head chef at the hottest new restaurant in the city tells an immigrant's rags-to-riches story. Hugo Ortega grew up in Mexico City and got started in the restaurant business washing dishes at Backstreet Cafe in 1987. A couple of years later, he signed up for the culinary program at Houston Community College, and by 1992, he was a line cook at Backstreet. In 1994, he married Tracy Vaught, one of the owners. Now, he's not only the head chef at Backstreet, he's also a partner in the eponymous Hugo's (1602 Westheimer, 713-524-7744), the ambitious new 180-seat Mexican restaurant in Montrose.

With such upscale creations as roasted duck tostadas and rabbit stew gorditas, chef Hugo has come off the starting block with arguably the most cutting-edge Mexican menu in the state. Paula Murphy, Hugo's public relations agent, describes the food as "authentic regional Mexican cuisine." I phoned Ortega to see what he called it.

"I have heard that you're serving 'pure' Mexican food at your restaurant. Is that right?" I ask Ortega.

"No, I don't think there is such a thing as 'pure' Mexican food. I am doing original Mexican food," he says. "We can't get things from Mexico, so this is Mexican food made with ingredients of the United States. But we grind our own chocolate and make our own crema fresca, and all our tortillas are made by hand."

The question is, how long will this adventurous menu last? A lot of innovative Mexican restaurants have opened with great fanfare in Texas, only to end up serving the same old nachos and fajitas after a few months. Ortega doesn't think it will happen to him.

"There are 500 restaurants serving Tex-Mex in Houston," he says. "Why in the name of God should I serve fajitas and nachos when there are hundreds of other restaurants doing that?"

"Do you serve chips and salsa?" I ask.

"We don't put them out on the table," he says. "But if you want it, I have it for you...If you went to Mexico and asked for chips and salsa, they would give it to you."

"What would you charge for chips and salsa?"

"No charge."

"And what if somebody wants nachos?"

"Well, I don't think I can serve nachos, but I can serve chilaquiles."

"So do you think you can stick to this menu and not make compromises?"

"If I didn't feel I could keep it honest, I wouldn't have opened this restaurant," he says.

I reminisce with Ortega about the trials and tribulations of high-end Texas Mexican restaurants like Austin's Fonda San Miguel, which tried to turn down customers who demanded Tex-Mex items like nachos and chips and salsa when it first opened. Fonda San Miguel finally gave up. Chips and salsa are now on every table, and the menu includes a nuevo Tex-Mex version of nachos featuring black beans and Mexican cheese.

"That was a long time ago," Ortega argues. "I think the Houston dining public is ready for the kind of food I'm doing here. Business has been great so far."

"What's the most popular item?" I ask.

"The carnitas," he says. Hugo's gets $15.95 for a plate of the fried pork chunks with salsa and homemade tortillas. Meanwhile, a whole pound of carnitas runs $4.95 at local carnicerías.

"I buy my carnitas at Matamoros Meat Market," I tell him.

"Those are pretty good," he admits. But Houston carnicerias don't have roasted duck, huitlacoche tacos or shredded rabbit stew.

"And how is the rabbit doing?" I ask.

"It's doing very well," Ortega says. "So is the whole red snapper."

Since the cocktail section of the menu includes margaritas, I observe that it looks like the Tex-Mex camel already has its nose under the tent. Give them margaritas and they will soon be asking for chips and salsa, I contend. But Ortega disagrees. Margaritas are served in Mexico these days too, and even if it is a gringo cocktail, the tequila is Mexican. Besides, he says, the restaurant has already served something like a thousand customers, and there has been only one request for chips and salsa.

"So are you willing to make the statement that you will not serve Tex-Mex at this restaurant?" I ask Ortega.

"I knew where you were going with this as soon as you called," he answers. "And I am not going to make any statements about what I will not do."

My agenda precedes me. In the "Six-Part History of Tex-Mex" series, I made it clear that I consider Tex-Mex to be an outstanding American regional cuisine, and most of Houston's "authentic Mexican food" a sham. Hugo Ortega has anticipated the challenge, and he has the perfect comeback: "It's called Hugo's because I didn't want to call it authentic Mexican food," he says. "I am not making any claims like that. I prefer to let my nationality and what I put out on the table do the talking for me."

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh