Celebrating Mexican Coastal Cuisine with Hugo Ortega

    Hugo Ortega
    Deb Smail

    Mexico City-born chef Hugo Ortega rang in 2014 with the opening of Caracol, named for the caracoles (Spanish for sea snails) he was enchanted with when he visited Mexico while researching his first book Hugo Ortega's Street Food of Mexico. The chef’s latest venture is part of a four-restaurant family co-owned with his wife, Tracy Vaught. The new seafood dining experience on Post Oak in Houston’s Galleria neighborhood joins the pair’s trio of long-successful restaurants Backstreet Café, Hugo’s, and Prego.

    Just over three decades ago, Vaught traded geology for gastronomy when her map-making position with Conoco made her crave a change in careers. Searching for something more social, she found her calling in the restaurant business and opened the Backstreet Café in 1983 with her uncle as partner.

    The following year, without a job or contacts in the U.S., Ortega, the eldest of eight children, immigrated to Houston with a cousin and a friend in search of the American dream. Armed with sheer determination and little knowledge of the language, he managed to find work as a busboy, dishwasher, and office cleaner to make ends meet as he worked at improving his English.

    Juggling two jobs, he decided to stay in Houston when his travel companions headed westward to California. Then, fate intervened in 1986: President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) allowing him to apply for permanent residency and unexpected unemployment led Ortega to Backstreet Café, where a mutual friend introduced him to Vaught. Through his combination of positive attitude, diligence, and eagerness to learn every post in the kitchen, Ortega showed his professional potential. Vaught offered to enroll him at Houston Community College in the Culinary Arts program and promoted him to the kitchen at Prego.

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    This San Antonio chef is lightening up Latin cuisine.