When Hugo's opened its doors on July 6, 2002, it became glaringly obvious that this wasn't your typical Mexican spot. In a city that loved its Tex-Mex and hadn't yet become the foodie destination it is today, Hugo's caused some raised eyebrows. But for owners Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega, the husband-and-wife team behind Backstreet Café and Prego (then; and Caracol now), it was simply an extension of what they'd done all along: create high-quality cuisine. In this instance, though, there was a noticeable addition to that edict: Hugo's would serve food authentic to Ortega's Mexican homeland. He and Vaught spoke to us about celebrating more than a decade in business and what they've learned along the way.
This was the first restaurant the two of you had opened together, even though you'd worked with each other at backstreet and Prego. What was that experience like?
Hugo: It was great. I think Tracy and I work well together. She is precise, an American lady. And I love the cooking and the romanticism of being able to bring back recipes from my grandmother and from Mexico's colonial days. This was all her idea. She said to me, "Why don't you cook the food of your country?" That's how it started.
Tracy: Originally, we'd been looking at a spot on Genessee Street, but it didn't work out. When we saw this space, we knew it would work. We leased it originally, but about five years after we opened, we bought the building.
You had to educate people a little bit when you opened, though, about what the concept here was. People were more used to Tex-Mex in Houston at the time, yes? For instance, you didn't have chips and salsa on the table.
Hugo: I don't know that is was about educating necessarily –
Tracy: It's true. We didn't have chips and salsa or frozen margaritas. But if someone asked for chips and salsa, we were happy to serve it. We still do. We don't do frozen margaritas. We don't have the machine for that. But, the concept here was about mirroring the way food is presented in Mexico, using those sauces and authentic ingredients. It was about staying true to Hugo and Ruben's heritage.
Before you opened, you went on a tour of Mexico, Hugo. What was that like?
Hugo: It was 23 days and we went all over, collecting recipes, going back to the roots of it. It was a great road trip and it really began my culinary education in a different way. We went along the Gulf Coast, Oaxaca, Puebla, Mexico City, along the Pacific, Puerto Vallarta. My grandmother had told me how to do so much of the cooking we do, about daily life in these tiny villages. That trip – and the restaurant – is deeply personal. Like her mole sauce. She was such a savvy cook, the women of the village would ask her to cook the mole for weddings. I use those lessons. And, one of my favorite things about the last 12 years was making the cookbook, when we went back to Mexico and re-connected with our roots.
Houston has changed over the years you've been open. Has that changed the business at all?
Hugo: Over the last five years, we've seen a Mexico City connection. Travel between there and Houston has increased, and there are more business people from Mexico working and traveling to Houston and we see them come in here. Originally we'd put a glossary of terms on the menu, and over the years, as people are exposed to more food and more international food, we didn't need that anymore.
Tracy: We also wrote an introduction on the menu about what we were trying to do in the beginning, explaining what we were trying to do. And, it turned out that we had some writers come in who liked it and then did research and they explained a lot of what we'd been trying to say, so there was an evolution of understanding. That helped a lot.
What do you wish you'd known about before you opened? Was there a piece of advice you wish someone had given you?
Hugo: I just wish I'd known then what I know today. But I've had so many great mentors over the years, Diana Kennedy, Susana Trilling, it was a growing process.
Tracy: One thing I wish I'd known was dealing with the physical building; especially a building like this. We need to replace the windows, and we've had to go through a lot with the city in terms of inspections on the space, and permitting. We've been trying since January of this year to replace the top windows along Westheimer, and we're still working on it.
Tracy: Nothing. We're keeping busy enough.
Hugo: Sometimes, things just come together in this life. Tracy and I work so well together, and complement each other. That's pretty fantastic.