After being nominated several years in a row, renowned Houston chef Hugo Ortega brought home the gold – the James Beard Award gold medal, that is. Ortega clinched the Best Chef Southwest title in May 2017.
His win signified a full-circle career achievement, as Ortega immigrated to Houston in 1984 from his native Mexico City with zero culinary experience. He did, in fact, start as a line cook at Backstreet Cafe, a restaurant he now owns.
Chef Hugo Ortega at his restaurant, Hugo’s — Photo courtesy of Hugo’s
Of course, Ortega’s historic win was no surprise to any Houstonian who’d been eating and loving the food from his four restaurants spread throughout the metro area: Caracol, Xochi, Backstreet Cafe and Hugo’s. Ortega is also a published author having written two cookbooks: Backstreet Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes from Our Neighborhood Cafe and Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico.
When Ortega is not serving up meals in his restaurants, there are a number of places to eat that are on his must list. These four restaurants, spanning the breadth of Indian and Pakistani eats to Italian American, are his favorites.
The first of Ortega’s places to head to when he has a hankering for a good meal in Houston is Himalaya Restaurant. Located in Sharpstown, Indian and Pakistani eats can be found on the menu. Choose from curries, tandoori, and even their revolving weekend fusion specialties such as smoked brisket masala, shrimp masala and grits, and crawfish masala etouffee.
“In so many ways, it reminds me of incredible Mexican cuisine,” Ortega says. “It’s very complex and full of flavors. The chef and his wife have an incredible understanding of their cuisine.”
Repeat eaters at Himalaya Restaurant rave about the lunch special available Tuesday through Friday. There are three platters to choose from: a combination one, vegetarian and chicken. Each platter comes with a grilled or dry vegetable, steamed basmati rice and fresh tandoori naan.
Goode Company Seafood
A local, homegrown chain, Goode Company Seafood has two locations in Houston: Katy Freeway and Westpark. It also happens to be one of Ortega’s favorites when dining in Houston. The restaurant is undoubtedly for seafood lovers – oysters, shrimp, fish, crab and more – and diners can choose between different preparations: fried, steamed or grilled. Ortega’s go-to when dining at Goode Company Seafood is the latter.
“My wife and I have been eating the mesquite grilled catfish with salsa roja or salsa verde,” explains Ortega. “We love to do that on Saturdays for lunch.”
Although Gulf Coast seafood is truly the ethos of this diner-style restaurant, there’s one item you should be sure to get a taste of: the pecan pie. The Brazos Bottom pecan pie, served since 1977, is an important fixture of the menu as it is truly Texan, complete with pecans harvested from the banks of the Brazos River. Even Oprah loves it!
Ortega goes for the smaller, cozier restaurants in Houston and Nancy’s Hustle on the east side of town is no exception. They’re described as a bistro reminiscent of cafes lining the cobblestone streets of France, but with a modern spin. And their menu is divided into small, medium or large plates.
Highlights include the lamb dumplings paired alongside labneh, lamb jus and a spicy tomato vinaigrette, as well as the hand-cut spaghetti with crab, parmesan, breadcrumbs and a fermented chili butter sauce. Their natural wine selection is another key feature of the restaurant.
“You gotta make a reservation like a month in advance,” Ortega says with a chuckle. “We don’t have the option but to wait.”
Have a sweet tooth? Nancy’s has a quirky dessert menu with choices such as parmesan cheesecake topped with black pepper honey or rice pudding creme brulee with citrus. Finish off your dessert choice with caffeine – either an Irish cream coffee or their $1 standard drip coffee available all day.
Coltivare Pizza & Garden
Another favorite of Ortega’s is Coltivare, found in the Woodland Heights neighborhood on the north side of Houston. It’s an Italian pizza eatery with a garden twist (fresh ingredients from the restaurant’s backyard). Menu items are a mix of small plates, salads, pasta and gulf-inspired entrees.
“This particular restaurant is another wonder,” says Ortega. “It’s small and first-come, first-serve. There’s always a line there.”
If heading to Coltivare, plan ahead, expect to wait and remember that they’re open only for dinner service.