The winter months in Houston this year have been marked by ups and downs. And although we are used to fluctuations, this year seems particularly erratic; 70 degrees one day, 35 degrees the next. Last week, however, a sunny day with temperatures in the 70s and no humidity lured my husband, Classic Rock Bob, and I out of the house and into Houston’s Museum District.
After admiring the fabulous Incomparable Impressionism from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibit at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, we were more than ready for lunch at 1 p.m. I had considered trying one of Houston’s many new restaurants, but the appeal of an outdoor patio made me explore our options. Since Backstreet Cafe had just reopened after foundation repairs, I suggested we head there and check out some of its new menu items.
Backstreet Cafe has been around for almost 39 years. Chef/owner Hugo Ortega began his career there as a dishwasher and busboy, before becoming a line cook and then executive chef. His wife Tracy Vaught first opened the restaurant in 1983. Today, the couple own and operate a number of restaurants under the H Town Restaurant Group umbrella, including Hugo’s, Caracol, Xochi and URBE.
Housed in a 1930s building in River Oaks, Backstreet Cafe sits in a particularly odd spot on S. Shepherd between W. Dallas and W. Gray, an area that irritated me when I was a much younger driver. Thanks to the GPS, we were able to easily stop at the right place, right in front of the restaurant. While Backstreet appears to have dedicated parking, there were orange cones in front of the driveway, so we stopped at the valet stand which is conveniently located at the main entrance.
There is a front patio that faces the rice box across the street, but we were seated on the courtyard patio. We lucked out on a table right by the fountain. Last year, Backstreet’s much-loved camphor tree was felled due to disease. A new tree was put in its place and another was still throwing its scarlet leaves into the fountain on this sunny February day.
Our server quickly handed us the menus and asked if we wanted still or sparkling water. He pointed us to the drink menu but I didn’t see the margaritas. He suggested the Hugo Rita, which we both chose. We were then brought two soft and warm buns, perfect for our rumbling stomachs.
My mission was to try the eggplant sandwich. While not an entirely new menu item, it was brought back when the restaurant reopened this month. My husband was eyeing the duck spring rolls ($11) on the entree menu, but also the red corn chicken enchiladas ($20). I mentioned that the enchiladas came with the corn pudding he wanted to try and suggested we could start by ordering the duck spring rolls, although duck isn’t one of my particularly favorite proteins.
I had also spotted the Hot Chicken Sandwich ($16) which came with coleslaw and fries. Even though I had planned to try the eggplant sandwich, I asked the waiter which he liked best. He said the chicken sandwich and since I’m easily misled when I’m undecided, I took his advice. He asked me if I was okay with the spiciness and I said, “Heck, yeah!”
Our order placed, we settled down to enjoy our margaritas under the shade of the multitude of umbrellas. Although the Hugo Ritas were tasty and refreshing, they were gone in a few sips. The margaritas are made with fresh lime juice, no high fructose corn syrup mix here, but they weren’t particularly strong. At $10 each, we could go broke drinking them all afternoon, so we went back to the drink menu. Classic Rock Bob suggested the bottle of sangria ($25). I agreed sangria was a perfect and appropriate idea for an afternoon in the backyard.
Another waiter stopped by and asked if we wanted more bread. My husband and I have never been one to pass up delicious bread and despite the fact that we ordered an appetizer, we said yes. After a while, my husband said, “Maybe the waiter makes the bread himself.” Almost on cue, the yeasty aroma of fresh bread wafted across the patio and moments later the young man appeared with a tray of fresh rolls for a number of tables. We burst out of it and steam emerged. I’m sorry for all Keto, Atkins, and Paleo people, but a soft, hot roll is like manna from heaven to me. I gave up on being a size single digit again, anyway.
Our sangria arrived in a reused Miraval Rose bottle accompanied by two tall wine glasses filled with ice and garnished with a slice of orange and a maraschino cherry. I may have let out a little cry of joy. It was the perfect refreshment to sip beside a fountain on a cloudless day in Houston.
Our duck spring roll starter was two rolls, cut in half diagonally, making four pieces. The wrapper was perfectly fried and crispy without even a hint of fat. For my part, the tender duck meat was still on the game side. It was helped by the soy sauce which could have used a little more ginger. CRB, however, was moaning in pleasure and that’s no exaggeration. The boy loves his duck. I left the extra coins for him because he was so happy.
Our entrees arrived just as we were finishing our appetizer, an indication of the good service. Our server was attentive without being intrusive. I could see him walking his tables knowing when to approach or when to stand back.
My chicken sandwich was served on a brioche bun which stood up well to the fried chicken breast topped with a generous amount of habanero sauce. A mayonnaise-based coleslaw helped keep the heat tempered a bit, but this sauce is not for wimps. There was a nice heat stroke but still had the fruity sweetness of the habanero pepper. The sangria was a refreshing complement to the spicy sauce itself.
When my husband sliced up his enchiladas, topped with cream and salsa verde, the smoked chicken inside came to prominence with a woodsy flavor that was a little too much for my palate but a treat for his. There were also little potato cubes in the enchilada and the red corn tortillas were very tender. The side of the green beans was slightly firm and heavily flavored with garlic, which we both really liked.
Then there was the corn pudding served as a side to the enchiladas. Sublime may be an overused term, but this corn pudding was just that. It was the CRB dish so I only tasted a few bites but I could have eaten the whole thing if I was a more greedy spouse. He said it reminded him of the eggplant flan I made at home and it had the same texture, like a soufflé. It is also offered as a side dish and not to be missed.
The matchstick fries served with my sandwich, however, were a disappointment. The seasoning was too salty and they just weren’t very satisfying. We ate them anyway because fries are fries.
As we had ordered an appetizer, we each had half of our meals to go. Our server took them away to put them in a box and we proceeded to finish our sangria. Although the courtyard was a bit crowded with the addition of pedestal heaters, we were still comfortable and the tables were well spaced out. Due to the enclosed space, we could hear the conversations of the guests around us. There was a table next to us with attractive people with accents straight out of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, discussing the importance of confession to the church. There was an older, well-heeled couple discussing things that older, well-heeled couples discuss and a table of fashionable young women laughing and having fun. We were a lucky group of people, escaping the confines of the office or home computer, to revel in a glorious afternoon.
As we left, all the staff thanked us and said goodbye. We congratulated ourselves on our dining choice that day, looking forward to more perfect patio days in the future.
back street cafe
Lunch: Wednesday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday to Saturday, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Brunch: Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.