What started out as a casual “watering hole” with simple soups, salads, and sandwiches as well as a popcorn machine in the bar, is now a top restaurant owned by one of the city’s most-respected restaurateurs and a James Beard Award-winning chef.
Sometimes destiny presents itself in a roundabout way. Such is the case for Tracy Vaught, Chef Hugo Ortega, and many other employees and alumni of Backstreet Cafe, the charming 1930s house-turned-bistro in Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood. Former geologist Vaught opened the restaurant in 1983 with no experience in the industry, but, through hard work and a knack for recognizing and nurturing talent in others, she created a Houston dining landmark. Here, Vaught found her calling as a restaurateur. Ortega discovered his natural talent as a chef and began his American Dream. Sommelier Sean Beck discovered his talent for wine and spirits. Pastry Chef Ruben Ortega perfected his skills, and countless others found a home and career path. And some even found love.
Hugo Ortega came to Backstreet Cafe to be a dishwasher. He was eager and hardworking and moved up to busser after he learned a few words of English. His love of cooking, learned from his mother and grandmother back in Mexico, often took him into the kitchen to watch the chefs at work. He was eventually promoted to cook, then enrolled in culinary school, graduated with his culinary degree and became executive chef of the restaurant. Along the way, Ortega and Vaught also fell in love and married. “When I cooked up the idea for this restaurant, I envisioned a menu that included food from my family table and that reflected the Texas Gulf Coast, but I was unsure of myself and let the customers dictate what to serve and it became a hodge-podge of dishes with no grounding,” says Vaught. “But through the years, we were able to reign in the menu, first with the help of Chef John Watt, whom we hired as a consultant and then chef, and then with Hugo by my side. The food became more honest, and the customers love it.”
Backstreet Cafe serves lunch, dinner and brunch that includes live jazz on Sunday. At dinner, they also offer themed tasting menus which may optionally be paired with red, white, or sparkling wine or bourbon. Dining al fresco on their New Orleans style patio is a favorite location for guests.
Cover photo courtesy of Backstreet Cafe.