Home Is Where the Cart Is
From totopos to tacos de pescado, Mexican street food is a cuisine all its own, one that Houston chef and Mexico City native Hugo Ortega knows well.
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To Native Texans, Mexican food is comfort food. But to someone who has moved here from Mexico, the opposite is true: it can be strange and confusing. Mexican food doesn’t taste the same in Texas. Recipes evolve, ingredients come from different soil, locals impart their own twists, and even though the new dishes might be perfectly fine, something gets lost in translation. Hugo Ortega, the executive chef and co-owner of Hugo’s in Houston, knows about missing the food from home in the most personal way. When he first arrived in Texas at the age of seventeen, he was desperately homesick. And baffled. “I had never had fajitas or a burrito,” he says. “I missed chiles rellenos, arroz con pollo, pozole at Christmas . . . my soul food.”
Ortega had grown up in Mexico City and Puebla, where he worked as a shoe-shine boy and flan vendor. He would arrive early to claim his usual corner and find the streets and markets already filled with carts selling roasted meats, salsas, bubbling stews, and fresh tortillas, all made from scratch in people’s homes that morning or the night before. “In Mexico, street food is serious cooking,” he says. “It is the most traditional food you can put in your mouth.” But as much as he loved Mexico, it was not the land of opportunity. In 1984 Ortega moved to Houston, where he barely scraped by as a dishwasher, line cook, and night janitor. Finally, in 1987, he caught a break. A serendipitous busboy job at Backstreet Cafe eventually led to culinary school and a position as the restaurant’s executive chef. It also led to romance. Ortega and his boss, Backstreet owner Tracy Vaught, fell in love and got married. Together they dreamed up a plan to open a restaurant that would celebrate the foods he had been missing ever since he left home.
In 2001 Ortega made the first of several trips back to Mexico, collecting recipes and buying artifacts for the restaurant. A year later Hugo’s opened, and from day one, it was a huge success. Soon everyone was asking, “When are you going to do a cookbook?” At first he was scared, but he and Tracy looked around and found only one other book on Mexican street food. So in 2011, Hugo and his brother Ruben—who had become the executive pastry chef at the restaurant—returned to Mexico with well-known culinary photographer Penny De Los Santos. In two whirlwind weeks, they hit Oaxaca, Veracruz, Mérida, Puebla, and Mexico City, taking more than five thousand pictures of countless indigenous dishes.
The result is Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico, due in bookstores this month. Try one or two of the nine eclectic recipes excerpted here—ranging from salsas to masa cakes topped with squash blossoms to refreshing paletas, or popsicles—if you’re having friends over for drinks. Or make the whole menu for a bountiful summer feast. The dishes selected here, however, only hint at the book’s scope. Much more than a cookbook, Street Food is a culinary journey filled with images and memories that bring Ortega’s homeland indelibly and deliciously to life.
Click for the recipes: