Food & Drink | August 2, 2022 8:03 am

Everywhere Houston Star Chef Hugo Ortega Eats on His Days Off

Including his favorite off-menu appetizer at the original Carrabba's

Chef Hugo Ortega at his restaurant Backstreet Cafe in Houston, Texas
You can't go wrong at one of Hugo Ortega's restaurants, but here's where the chef eats.
Paula Murphy

If you’re out to dinner in Houston, there’s a decent chance you’re sitting at one of Hugo Ortega’s restaurants. The James Beard Award-winning chef is responsible for some of the city’s best dining experiences, with a portfolio that includes Hugo’s, Xochi, Backstreet Cafe, Caracol and Urbe.

Ortega grew up in Mexico City before coming to Houston as a teenager. He worked his way up through restaurant kitchens, starting as a dishwasher, then becoming a line cook and eventually taking the reins as executive chef. Now at the helm of multiple restaurants, he focuses mostly on Mexican cuisine, from coastal dishes at Caracol to Oaxacan plates at Xochi and street food at Urbe. Given his resume and lengthy experience in Houston, he’s also a great resource for where to eat in the city, even if it’s outside the doors of his own concepts.

These are some of Ortega’s favorite restaurants and dishes around town, from his go-to to-go coffee and seafood lunches to a handful of can’t-miss dinner options. Follow his advice for a full day of superior eating and drinking.

Breakfast

“I don’t really go out for breakfast when I am home. I usually grab something at the house before I go for a long bike ride, or I make something quick at one of the restaurants when I get to work — a fresh tortilla with scrambled eggs, avocado and salsa.”

Lunch

“My wife Tracy [Vaught] and I go to the original location of Goode Co. Seafood at least once a week for the last 25-plus years. They are pioneers of coastal cooking. The campechana is a must, and we always have oysters, too. I love the look and feel of the space, housed in an old passenger train car. Very Houston.”

Coffee and Snacks

“For coffee, I really enjoy Giant Leap located near our restaurant, Urbe. They serve locally roasted coffee and breads and pastries from another local business, Cake & Bacon. I love the bright, comfortable space, which is a great spot for meetings away from my own places. For a sweet snack, when I work brunch at our restaurant Urbe, I like to sneak one of our fresh-baked conchas — my favorites.”

Dinner

“I really love dumplings and am on a bit of a Trendy Dumpling kick lately. I like the hot and spicy pork dumplings with chili oil, steamed veggie dumplings and shumai dumplings, and also the dan dan noodles and Beijing duck.

“For Italian, we like to go to the original location of Carrabba’s, a Houston classic. I always order the linguine pescatore and an off-the-menu appetizer that we customize each time we go. We like it this way: olive oil-sautéed asparagus, lump crab, shrimp and garlic served with toast (usually it is sautéed in butter with fried shrimp in the mix). So good!

“At Rosie Cannonball, we usually order a pizza, some pasta and a side or two. The menu changes often and we like that. They also serve a great margarita. 

“For an early dinner on the weekend or to-go after work, Tex-Mex from La Mexicana always satisfies. The order never varies from Black Angus fajitas, medium rare, with flour tortillas, pico de gallo, avocado and rice — no beans, no cheese and no sour cream. 

Oporto Fooding House & Wine has great Portuguese food in a really pretty space, an easy stop on the way downtown to see a concert or a Houston Astros game. Portuguese paella is the order if we don’t want a bunch of small plates. Otherwise, we like scallop farrotto and camarãoes piri piri — we usually get two orders of this — lamb ribs and seafood curry, to name a few. 

Brennan’s of Houston is a place we like to celebrate the monumental occasions in our family. In fact, this is where I went after my U.S. citizenship ceremony many years ago! Great gumbo, turtle soup, pecan-crusted fish and bread pudding souffle (when available), and who can resist their signature Bananas Foster?”

Drinks

“We don’t often go out for drinks, but when we do we go to two of Houston’s famous bars, Julep and Anvil. I love a perfectly made, fresh-juice margarita and sparkling wine — the perfect drinks for tasting with friends.”