Courtesy: H Town Restaurant Group
spring day” in Houston after a harrowing overnight journey. It was 1982, and Ortega was just one face in a crowd of over 100,000 undocumented immigrants flocking to Bayou City following the economic boom of the late 1970s. He did not know the language; he did not have a job; he did not come with family. His early years in the U.S. were lonely, full of odd jobs and a fair share of frustration. But Hugo was determined not to give up.
The Stars Align
Chef Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught at their award-winning Mexican coastal restaurant, Caracol.
The diversity of this wonderful city is what has opened it up to international flavors, to accepting people from different parts of the world.
H O U S TO N H OT E L M A G A Z I N E
World’s Fair and handed it to the ice cream vendor next door. Finally, an American classic was born. History—of food, of painting, of government—is awash in such stories. Behind every new idea, every new dish, lies a lineage of individual ingredients and practices that come together to create something wholly unique—something better than the sum of each composite part. Such is life in Houston, a living, breathing symphony of ideas that has fast grown into one of America’s foremost cultural and economic powerhouses. Houston is characterized by its status as the most diverse city in the country, and visitors can scarcely travel the length of a city block without seeing an array of cultural markets and boutiques, hearing the thud of chopped-and-screwed music from a car whizzing down the road, or smelling the enticing aromas emanating from a multitude of restaurants. It’s this strength, in particular, that has put Houston on the map. Ours is a culinary city. “The diversity of this wonderful city is what has opened it up to international flavors, to accepting people from different parts of the world,” chef Ortega purports— and he knows firsthand about Houston’s capacity for acceptance. Hugo left his native Mexico when he was just 17 years old, arriving to “a beautiful
“I was hungry to do something with my life. I needed to ‘make it,’” he recalls. Five long years after he made his way to the city, Hugo found his chance. In the spring of 1987, he arrived at the back door of Backstreet Cafe, a fledgling bistro set in a charming 1930s home in River Oaks, unaware of the Shakespearean twist his life was about to undergo. He applied for a job as a dishwasher and was hired by Backstreet’s owner, Tracy Vaught. “You know, that was the turn of my life,” Hugo muses—not something many people can say of their first day washing dishes. Of course she didn’t know it at the time, but it was the turn of Tracy’s, too. Vaught had walked away from a budding geology career a few years prior. “I just found myself looking out the window a lot, and thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I wasn’t inside this high-rise building. I wish I was walking around in the sun,’” she remembers. Tracy began to develop her interest in cooking, and when she found the perfect location for her concept, she gave her uncle a call. “I asked him if he would help me, and what did he think, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, you’ve got to follow your dream.’” Hugo puts it simply: “Tracy is a rebel.” And Backstreet Cafe was a good place for rebels to dream. Hugo worked his way up through the Backstreet kitchen, progressing from dishwasher to line cook to grill operator to the sauté pans. “Backstreet is very close to my heart,” he shares. “Every corner
has so much history. The patio is like my second home. So it means everything to me. And I hope that we’ll stay here for another 100 years. There’s a lot of love here.” Love for cooking, certainly— but Hugo and Tracy formed a connection, too. “We had a company party down at the beach,” Tracy recalls. “All the employees came down, so that was where I got to know him more on a personal level.” “It was very romantic,” Hugo enthuses over Tracy’s protestations. The two struck up a relationship shortly thereafter. Ever his biggest supporter, Tracy put Hugo through culinary school at Houston Community College. Hugo graduated in 1991; he and Tracy married three years later. Today, their business, H Town Restaurant Group, owns four of Houston’s most acclaimed restaurants: Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, Caracol, and Xochi. Xochi, Ortega’s latest triumph, is a swank new concept located downtown in the Marriott Marquis, serving traditional Oaxacan cuisine elevated to dazzling contemporary heights. It was recently named the best restaurant in town in the Houston Chronicle’s annual report.
Taking Passion from Authenticity Hugo’s ascendancy is one that few could have seen coming—the kind of pull-yourself-up story that Hollywood dreams of. His journey from undocumented immigrant to dishwasher to award-winning Executive Chef and head of a blossoming restaurant empire is nothing short of inspirational. But beneath each uniform he wore, his heart beat with a love for food that can be traced to his earliest days. Hugo was born in Mexico City, but moved to the mountains of Oaxaca to live with his grandmother when he was seven years old. “It was such an incredible transition for me. I went from being a city boy to being alone in the mountains with 300 goats!” he recalls. “There was no electricity,
Published on Nov 16, 2017