Houston's award-winning restaurant Backstreet Cafe celebrates 40 years of operation by sharing the secrets to some of their most famous recipes and cocktails.
Lift a pink dragon or some rosé sangria and wish muchas felicidades to the folks who have made the award-winning Backstreet Cafe a Houston success story for 40 years.
What started out in 1983 as a casual watering hole with simple soups, salads, and sandwiches — and even a popcorn machine in the bar — is now a top restaurant owned by one of Houston’s most-respected restaurateurs, Tracy Vaught, and James Beard Award-winning chef Hugo Ortega.
Former geologist Vaught opened the restaurant with no experience in the industry but, through hard work, struggles, and a knack for recognizing and nurturing talent in others, she created a Houston dining landmark and found her calling as a restaurateur. Chef Hugo Ortega started as a dishwasher and discovered his natural talent as a chef and began his American dream, pastry chef also Ruben Ortega perfected his skills, and countless others found a home and a career path.
At the Backstreet Cafe, Tracy and Hugo became a dynamic combination — in restaurant life and in love.
The cafe started with a very simple menu but has grown to become a top award-winning table in Houston with a menu that has evolved through the years to become as diverse as Houston, with Southern, Cajun, Creole, Hispanic, and Asian influences, among others.
In 2013, on the 30th anniversary of the restaurant, Vaught and Ortega published Backstreet Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes From Our Neighborhood Cafe to share some of their most popular recipes.
Here we share two of Backstreet’s popular cocktails and some other tasty recipes to toast 40 years of hard work and success for this homegrown H-town favorite.
The Pink Dragon
1½ ounces mezcal
½ ounce gin
1 ounce fresh lime juice
¾ ounce agave
¼ ounce passion fruit purée
Couple dashes each of orange bitters, Ms. Better’s Bitter Miraculous Foamer, and Snappy’s Bitters Fire Tincture
Place all ingredients in shaker with ice, shake well and pour into a glass. Garnish with dragon fruit slice.
Backstreet Rosé Sangria
1 bottle rosé
8 ounces guava juice
5½ ounces peach schnapps
4 ounces lemon juice
2½ ounces simple syrup
2 ounces Grey Goose Strawberry Lemongrass
¾ ounce Aperol
Combine all ingredients. Garnish with lemon wheels and sliced strawberries.
Stuffed Poached Pears
At the restaurant, we serve these pears as a salad with red oak and watercress leaves and use the poaching liquid as the dressing. This is also a very popular vegetarian side for our guests’ holiday gatherings. It can be prepared up to 2 days ahead. Cut up any leftover pears to top the Stuffed Endive Spears — an easy holiday party bite.
½ cup pecans, lightly roasted
¼ cup dried cranberries
⅓ cup blue cheese, crumbled
2 tbsp olive oil
4 tbsp unsalted butter, divided
¼ cup chopped shallots
1 tbsp chopped garlic
2 whole cloves
1 star anise
3 allspice berries, lightly crushed
Pinch red pepper flakes
½ tsp green peppercorns, lightly crushed
4 large Bosc pears, peeled, stem intact
1 ½ cups sweet red wine, preferably Port
½ cup red wine
½ tsp coarse kosher salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
For stuffing: Place the pecans and dried fruit in a food processor and pulse until coarsely chopped. Transfer to a bowl. Incorporate the blue cheese with the pecan-dried fruit mixture using your hands. Set aside until ready to use or refrigerate up to 2 days in advance.
To poach: Preheat oven to 375˚F. Preheat a large ovenproof saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat with oil and half the amount of butter. Once the butter has completely melted, add the shallots and garlic and cook 2 minutes. Stir in the cloves, anise, allspice, red pepper flakes and green peppercorns. Add the pears and allow them to lightly caramelize on each side, about 3 to 4 minutes, rotating occasionally to acquire even color. Add the wines, salt and ground black pepper and bring to a boil. Lower heat and leave gently bubbling for 5 minutes, occasionally basting the pears with the wine. Remove from heat and cover.
Place pears in the oven and cook until pears are soft when pierced with a sharp knife, about 45 minutes. Remove from oven every 15 minutes and rotate the pears using a pair of tongs to ensure even poaching. Remove from oven. Carefully transfer pears to a sheet pan to cool. Place pot with poaching liquid over high heat and reduce by half its amount, about 10 to 12 minutes. Whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and remove from heat. Transfer to gravy bowl.
Once they are cool enough to handle, core pears from the bottom using an apple corer. Stuff each pear with dried fruit mixture. Set aside remaining mixture to use as garnish.
Place pears on a platter and pour half the amount of sauce over each pear. Set aside remaining sauce. Garnish pears with more of the dried fruit mixture.
Sweet Potato Gratin
(Serves 8 to 10)
Growing up, my family served sweet potatoes in the traditional American fashion. The sweet potatoes were whipped and had marshmallows on top. The ones we serve at Backstreet are a more elegant version with a sweet crumble on top. They are baked for a very long time. When you cut into them you will see the many layers of sweet potato inside – it is worth the wait. This is the most ordered item on our Thanksgiving to-go menu and can be made up to 2 days ahead. Reheat by removing from refrigerator 30 minutes before warming in a 350°F oven, covered, for 30 to 45 minutes.
6 lbs sweet potatoes, peeled
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup granulated sugar
½ recipe Almond-Oat Streusel (see page 99) for topping
Preheat oven to 350˚F degrees. Lightly spray a 3-quart baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.
Place a mandolin on a clean cutting surface. Cut sweet potatoes, lengthwise, into thin slices of 1/8-inch thickness. Whisk together the heavy cream and sugar in a small bowl and set aside.
For each layer, arrange the sweet potatoes in a single layer in the prepared dish. Lightly drizzle the cream-sugar mixture over the potatoes. Repeat this process until using all of the potatoes. For the top layer, drizzle all of the remaining cream-sugar mixture. Cover with aluminum foil, place on a sheet pan to catch cooking juices, and place in oven until the sweet potatoes are soft or until easily pierced through with a knife, about 2 hours. Every 30 minutes, turn sheet pan for even baking. Remove from oven, uncover and sprinkle gratin with streusel. Return to oven and bake until lightly browned on top, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from oven. Serve warm.
Omit the oatmeal from the Almond-Oat Streusel when making this recipe.
Wild Mushroom Soup
For this soup, we use a variety of mushrooms according to what our local purveyor can get us in the market. It is one of our most popular soups. The drizzle of sherry before serving and the optional addition of Sottocenere cheese give the soup a boost of rich flavor. At Backstreet, we also garnish the soup with a delicately thin crostini smeared with blue cheese for an even greater flavor indulgence.
8 oz white button mushrooms
4 oz each shiitake and portabella mushrooms
4 tbsp unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tbsp chopped shallots
2 tbsp fresh thyme, leaves only
1 ½ tsp coarse kosher salt
4 cups whole milk
½ cup heavy cream
¾ tsp freshly ground black pepper
¾ tsp ground white pepper
6 thin slices Sottocenere cheese, optional
Scrub dirt off each mushroom using a clean, damp kitchen towel. Remove stems and ribs using a small kitchen spoon. Place cleaned mushrooms in the food processor and pulse until finely chopped.
Preheat a large pot over medium-high heat with butter. Once butter is completely melted. Add garlic and shallots and cook until soft. Add mushrooms, thyme and salt and cook for 6 minutes, stirring.
Add milk, heavy cream and black and white peppers and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer soup for 18 to 20 minutes, stirring. Add cheese, if using, and completely melt. Remove soup from heat and transfer to a blender. Purée into a smooth consistency. Work in batches.
Serve warm. Garnish as mentioned above or with a few additional sautéed mushrooms, if desired.
(pronounced SOTTO CHEN-eh-ray) is a semi-soft Italian cow’s milk cheese made with shaved truffles. It has an ash-colored rind that is a mixture of nutmeg, coriander, licorice, cloves and fennel. It is one of Hugo’s favorite to use. It is available in the cheese section of gourmet grocery stores. Remove rind before using.
Visit Backstreet Cafe online. Hint for the holidays: They sell and ship amazing fruitcakes.
Photography: courtesy Backstreet Cafe