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A Houston restaurant love story: Unlikely busboy romance builds an icon — 30 years and counting

A Houston restaurant love story: Icon hits 30 years thanks to romance

Thirty years ago, the energy industry lost a geologist, but Houston gained an iconic restaurant. That's when Tracy Vaught decided to open Backstreet Cafe.

"Traveling to remote well sites was fun but sitting in an office making maps was not my true calling," Vaught says. "Soul searching made me realize that I had always felt happiest around my family’s communal table and I wanted to capture and share that feeling. ‘I should open a restaurant,’ I surprisingly told myself.”

Although the restaurant lacked direction initially, fate intervened. Turns out that one of the busboys had an interest in cooking. He started training in the restaurant's kitchen before heading off to culinary school. Along the way that busboy turned chef — two-time James Beard Award finalist Hugo Ortega — and Vaught fell in love and got married.

Together, they transformed Backstreet into a restaurant that focuses on seasonal cuisine and Gulf Coast flavors. 

To celebrate the anniversary, Vaught and Ortega have self-published a cookbook called Backstreet Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes from Our Neighborhood Cafe that features more than 120 recipes from the restaurant’s kitchen and bar, translated for the home. Recipes from Ortega, his brother/pastry chef Reuben and Backstreet's beverage director Sean Beck are divided into Spring/Summer, Fall/Winter, Brunch and Drinks. Cookbooks can be purchased at Backstreet, Hugo's, local bookstores or online.

"When I cooked up the idea for this restaurant . . . I was unsure of myself and let the customers dictate what to serve and it became a hodge-podge of dishes with no grounding,” Vaught says.  “But through the years, we were able to reign in the menu . . . The food became more honest, and the customers loved it. And this is what is celebrated and featured in Backstreet Kitchen."

Taken from the fall/winter section, this recipe for slow braised short ribs produces a filling, satisfying meal that's perfect once the weather turns cooler. Yes, Team CultureMap tore into the sample dish as soon as the filming ended. It's delicious. 

Serves Six

3 pounds short ribs

2 whole eggs

¼ cup whole milk

1 ½ tbsp freshly ground coarse black pepper

1 tbsp ground black pepper

1 ½ tsp coarse kosher salt

2 tbsp olive oil

1 large carrot, chopped

1 medium white onion, chopped

6 large cipollini onions, peeled but intact

1 large celery rib, chopped

1 cup red wine of choice

1 cup water

Pat dry short ribs on all sides using a paper towel. Whisk together the eggs with the milk in a small bowl. Combine both black peppers and salt in a separate bowl. Pass short ribs through egg wash and then black pepper mixture. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 375˚F. Preheat a Dutch oven over medium heat with oil for two minutes. Sear each short rib in the hot oil until golden on each side. Work in batches so as not to overcrowd the pot. Place short ribs on a plate, covered, and set aside. In the same pot, add carrot, both types of onions and celery and cook for three minutes. Add wine to deglaze along with water. Return short ribs to pot, making sure liquid covers the short ribs at least three fourths of the way. Cover and place in oven. Braise until fork tender, about three to three and a half hours. Check liquid level every hour. Add water if required.

KITCHEN TIP: PREPARING IN ADVANCE

This dish can be made up to three days ahead. Allow short ribs to cool completely the day of preparation and refrigerate until ready to use. Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before reheating, covered, in a 350°F oven for 30 to 40 minutes.

Backstreet Cafe Hugo Ortega cooking video October 2013 Tracy Vaught
The husband and wife team of Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega are celebrating 30 years of Backstreet Cafe with a new cookbook.  Photo by Joel Luks
Backstreet Cafe Hugo Ortega cooking video October 2013 Tracy Vaught
Backstreet Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes from Our Neighborhood Cafe features recipes from chef Hugo Ortega, pastry chef Reuben Ortega and mixologist Sean Beck.  Photo by Joel Luks
Backstreet Cafe Hugo Ortega cooking video October 2013
Chef Hugo Ortega presents the completed short ribs dish.  Photo by Joel Luks
Backstreet Cafe Hugo Ortega cooking video October 2013
After we took this photo, we devoured the short ribs. Try this recipe to find out why. Photo by Joel Luks
Backstreet Cafe Hugo Ortega cooking video October 2013 Tracy Vaught
Backstreet Cafe Hugo Ortega cooking video October 2013 Tracy Vaught
Backstreet Cafe Hugo Ortega cooking video October 2013
Backstreet Cafe Hugo Ortega cooking video October 2013
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