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Hugo's vs. Hugo: Hugo's in Montrose Files Suit Against Hugo Caliente

Does a well-regarded Mexican restaurant have a case against a lesser known local restaurant?

Hugo Ortega of Hugo's and Hugo Caliente's Chris Smith are at odds over name usage.
Hugo Ortega of Hugo's and Hugo Caliente's Chris Smith are at odds over name usage.
Hugo's and Hugo Caliente/Facebook

Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught filed a lawsuit against Hugo Caliente owner Christopher Smith, owner of Monday, January 19. The James Beard Award nominated chef and wife Vaught own Hugo's, the upscale Mexican restaurant in Montrose, and are accusing Smith of trademark infringement. Smith owns Hugo Caliente, the casual Tex-Mex restaurant in Town & Country, but the husband and wife team believe Smith is capitalizing off their well-known name.

The disagreement dates back to last year when Smith opened his restaurant in the fall. According to an interview with KTRK, the Hugo Caliente chef says the name of his eatery stems from his "super hot and super fact convectional oven," but Ortega and Vaught disagree. The duo believe Smith knowingly selected the name Hugo for his Tex-Mex concept because the upscale Hugo's is closely associated with Mexican food in Houston. The Hugo Caliente chef appeased the husband and wife team by changing the wording on a few menu items but says that wasn't enough. He received a text message during the Christmas holidays asking him to do more but Smith declined. Ortega and Vaught also think the styling of their logos are similar too and have included that in the suit.

When contacted this afternoon regarding the lawsuit, Vaught provided the following statement:

Recently, we became aware that a restaurant had opened in Town & Country, operating under the name Hugo Caliente. The problem is that this restaurant’s use of the Hugo Caliente name has caused significant confusion and has created the mistaken belief that this is a new extension and new location related to Hugo’s and Chef Hugo Ortega in West Houston. This is simply not the case – Hugo’s has not opened a causal location out in Town and Country. Hugo’s remains at its single location at 1600 Westheimer.  By Hugo Caliente’s frequent shorthand reference to itself as "Hugo’s," and inclusion of "Hugo" themed menu items and other "Hugo" or "Hugo’s" references, the confusion has spread.

Hugo Caliente’s use of the words "Hugo’s", "Hugo" and their name, "Hugo Caliente" is hurting the brand that we’ve worked so hard to build over the past 12 years. We have attempted to work with the owner of Hugo Caliente at an acceptable resolution to this matter, without resorting to litigation, but we were unsuccessful in our efforts.

Smith and representatives with Hugo Caliente were unavailable for comment.

Whether Ortega and Vaught's claims are valid will be determined in the coming months, but it's hard to conceive that anyone could mistake Smith's counter-service and casual Hugo Caliente for the regional Mexican fare offered at upscale Hugo's. They're two different concepts and the food is nowhere near comparison. As for the styling, perhaps it's just coincidental.