Houston Chef Hugo Ortega on Travel, Tex-Mex and His James Beard Title

Despite recognition as the this year's best chef in the Southwest, the humble chef attributes his success to the Bayou City itself.

It’s the quintessential American tale: A young  Mexico City native immigrates to Houston with little more than a pipe dream and a will to work hard. He’ll get his start in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher at a local bistro called Backstreet Café, owned by a woman named Tracy with whom he’d fall in love and later marry. A decade and a culinary arts degree later, Hugo Ortega assumes the role of executive chef at Backstreet Café. Together, he and Tracy co-own four of Houston’s most established restaurants—Hugo’s, Caracol, Xochi and of course, the acclaimed chef’s “beloved” Backstreet Café.

Hugo’s hard work received much-deserved recognition in 2017, when he became the first Mexican-born chef to earn the prestigious title of Best Chef: Southwest at the James Beard Awards. Here, he dishes on his favorite Houston hot spots, and how he’s making his mark on its multicultural cuisine scene.

Houston has blown up on the food scene as of late. You arrived here in 1984. How has the culinary scene evolved in the city since then?

It has been absolutely wonderful to be a part of this city for more than three decades. From a gastronomic point of view, many of us came back [to Houston] in the '80’s when the economy wasn’t too friendly, but we stuck it out here and we’re so proud to represent Houston. To me, it seems like Houstonians have dedicated their heart and soul to make sure their city is an international city and competes with other great cities in America, and it’s started to pay off. I just hope by the end of my run I’m still a part of this great city. 

Who are some of the chefs you’ve developed friendships with or enjoyed working alongside? Are there any that have influenced you in some way?

We have many of them—Justin Yu. Kaiser [Laskhkari] from Himalaya, [who] created a dish in my name. He told me, 'Hugo, you inspire me to cook something for you.' It has been an incredible friendship. There are many other great chefs [here]: Chris Shepherd, Bryan Caswell, the Brennan family, Robert del Grande, the Cordua family. Those people have been influential and have opened the doors for second-, third- and fourth-generation cooks to come along. It’s been a bit of effort from everyone, and I thank them for making it all possible. 

How did growing up in Mexico City influence your culinary background and restaurant Xochi in the new Marriott Marquis?

[Diversity] is one of the greatest aspects this city has to offer…[Mexico City] is the essence of our cuisine [at Xochi], and we represent it at the highest stage in our city…It’s the first time we have had a restaurant in a hotel, and it’s different in many ways; [for one,] we have an international audience…we are always learning how to be more successful with Xochi, but it and the Oaxacan cuisine have been well received and I could not be happier. 

At Xochi (and other concepts), the cuisine is a more chef-driven approach to the food of Mexico, as opposed to Tex-Mex fare, for which Houston has made a name for itself. Have you developed an identity there, carving out a niche with more traditional Mexican dishes? 

You could say that. We bring our culture, and ingredients and eventually turn those into wonderful food. That is where we influence the gastronomic scene. We love what we do, but don’t get me wrong—I get my Tex-Mex too!

You’ve got to. So where do you go for Tex-Mex? 

Escalantes, a neighborhood restaurant called La Mexicana and Ninfa’s. [They’re] all good. 

Chef Hugo and his wife, Tracy
Chef Hugo and his wife, Tracy (©Erik Kayne)

You spend so much time in the kitchen at work. Do you still like or find time to cook at home?

Most of the time Tracy cooks at home, and I always go in there and clean up after her. Sometimes I fire my grill up. I have a Green Egg, [so I will] grill a piece of meat or fish on the weekend and share it with family. 

Speaking of family, do you and your brother (pastry chef Ruben Ortega) ever “compete” in the kitchen? 

He’s super talented and creates incredible recipes, pastries and desserts. We try to complement each other...but of course, I want my food to be better than his! [Laughs] Sometimes we go about it in a friendly, brotherly way. 

Do you go to (upscale Texas grocery store and foodie destination) H-E-B Central Market? 

Oh, absolutely! I love to go to Central Market. We like to keep the menu seasonal, so I’ll go there and see what produce they have, buy a few things and go to the kitchen to work on it. I use Central Market to inspire me. 

Xochi Houston
Octopus entree at Xochi (©Julie Soefer)

What was your inspiration behind Xochi, and what can patrons expect there?

It’s an absolutely one-of-a-kind experience...We bring all the peppers, herbs, cocoa beans and all these unique ingredients that we [source directly] from Oaxaca to be able to cook and have those Oaxacan flavors. That’s the only way to accomplish that. I’ve been bringing in these peppers—and the grasshoppers—with my friend for 16 years since we started Hugo’s. Now we have a new insect called chicatana and we make mole with that. 

What is that?

It’s a flying ant. During the rainy season, which is right now as we speak, [the ants] hatch and locals collect them, toast them and season them. And that’s how we get [chicatana] to make wonderful sauce, mole, salsa, and salt for seasoning food or putting on the rim of a cocktail.

Xochi Houston
Barbacoa entree at Xochi (©Paula Murphy)

That sounds interesting. What’s the must-try dish at Xochi?

You’ve got to try the moles…[our] mole tastings [are] a culinary experience. We have meat entrées like Barbacoa de Res de Zaachila, which is a skirt steak with a chile paste that we wrap with hoja santa, then roll it up and grill it. That’s absolutely wonderful. The oysters we cook in the horno [a wood-fired Mexican oven]. At Caracol, I recommend the roasted snapper. I am also a big fan of the crudo, shellfish and ceviche. 

What was it like earning the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest after being a finalist for six years straight?

We are overwhelmed with the love and friendship [we’ve received]. It’s been something unbelievable we have accomplished. I was telling my friends this, and I’ll tell you right now: I think the only reason we won is because every Houstonian was behind me and really supported us. 

What should first-time guests order at your namesake concept, Hugo’s?

They for sure need to try the carnitas and the stuffed poblano peppers. Sunday Brunch at Hugo’s is also a wonderful experience because you have the opportunity to choose what you like. We also have brunch at Caracol, Xochi and my beloved Backstreet Café, where we serve brunch on Saturday and Sunday.

Caracol Houston
Robalo en mole amarillo at Caracol (©James Heard)

What are some places or activities you would recommend to someone visiting Houston?

There are so many things to do, especially downtown or in the Galleria area. If you’re downtown you can go to a ballgame, concert or the museums. All this can be done through the Metro bus because it connects the city in a way that’s convenient. These days, there is so much the city has to offer—the theater, the symphony. It’s just an absolutely wonderful city to come and experience. The new Marriott Marqus [where Xochi is located] has a lazy river pool on the sixth floor in the shape of Texas! 

Yes, it is very “Texas” isn’t it? What do you do for fun on your days off?

I like to travel. Recently we went to Austin and San Antonio; the Texas Hill Country is beautiful. I [also] like to visit our local growers [and] stay in touch with everybody. 

Related Article: Through the Grapevine: Harvest Season in the Texas Hill Country

So what’s next for Hugo Ortega? Where do you see your career in the next 10 years?

I would love to continue trying to earn the love of this city and my peers. I would never say no to a great opportunity if it came our way in any shape or form. I cannot thank this great city [enough]...I feel so proud to be a part of Houston. It’s been wonderful to us.

John Rhodes writes about eating in drinking in Houston. Follow his foodie adventures on Instagram at @jrhodes501