The winter months in Houston this year have been up and down temperature wise. And though we are used to the fluctuations, this year seems particularly erratic; 70 degrees one day, 35 degrees the next. Last week, however, a bright sunny day with temps in the low 70s and no humidity lured my husband, Classic Rock Bob, and myself out of the house and into Houston’s Museum District.
After taking in the fabulous Incomparable Impressionism of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, we were more than ready for lunch at 1 p.m. I had considered trying one of Houston’s many new restaurants but the beckoning call of an outdoor patio had me investigating our options. Since Backstreet Cafe had just recently reopened after foundation repairs, I suggested we head there and check out some of its new menu items.
Backstreet Cafe has been around for nearly 39 years. Chef/owner Hugo Ortega began his career there as a dishwasher and busboy, eventually working his way up to line cook then executive chef. His wife Tracy Vaught first opened the restaurant in 1983. Now 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 at a particularly odd spot on S. Shepherd between W. Dallas and W. Gray, an area that used to unnerve me when I was a much younger driver. Thanks to GPS, we were easily able to pull off at the right spot, straight in front of the restaurant. While Backstreet seems to have a dedicated parking lot, there were orange cones in front of the driveway so we just pulled up to the valet stand which sits conveniently by the front entrance.
There’s a front terrace that faces the Rice Box across the street but we were set on the courtyard patio. We lucked out on a table right next to the fountain. Last year, Backstreet’s much loved camphor tree was removed due to disease. A new tree was put in its place and another was still dropping its scarlet leaves into the fountain on this sunny February day.
Our server quickly handed us menus and asked if we wanted still or sparkling water. He pointed us to the drinks menu but I didn’t see the margaritas. He suggested the Hugo Rita, which we both chose. We were then brought two soft, warm bread rolls which were perfect for our rumbling stomachs.
My mission was to try the Eggplant Sandwich. Though 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 appetizer menu but also the Red Corn Chicken Enchiladas ($20). I mentioned that the enchiladas came with the corn pudding that he wanted to try and suggested that we could order the Duck Spring Rolls to start, though duck is not a particularly favorite protein of mine.
I also had spotted the Hot Chicken Sandwich ($16) which came with coleslaw and fries. Even though I had planned on trying the Eggplant Sandwich, I asked the server which he preferred. He said the chicken sandwich and since I am easily led astray when I am indecisive, I followed his advice. He asked if I was okay with spiciness and I said, “Heck, yeah!”
Our order given, we sat back to enjoy our margaritas under the shade of the multitude of umbrellas. Even though the Hugo Ritas were tasty and refreshing, they disappeared within a handful of sips. The margaritas are made with fresh lime juice, no high fructose corn syrup mix here, but they were not particularly strong. At $10 apiece, we could go broke chugging those all afternoon so we went back to the drink menu. Classic Rock Bob suggested the bottle of sangria ($25). I agreed that sangria was a perfect idea and fitting for a courtyard afternoon.
Another server stopped by and asked if we would like more bread. My husband and I have never been ones to pass up delicious bread and despite our having ordered an appetizer, we replied affirmatively. After a while, my husband said, “Perhaps the busboy is making the bread himself.” Almost on cue, the yeasty aroma of fresh bread wafted through the patio and moments later, the young man appeared with a tray of fresh rolls for a number of tables. We broke into one and steam emerged. I am sorry for all the Keto, Atkins and Paleo people, but a soft, warm roll is like manna from heaven to me. I have given up ever being a single digit size again, anyway.
Our sangria arrived in a repurposed Miraval Rose bottle accompanied by two tall wine glasses filled with ice and garnished with a slice of orange and a maraschino cherry. I might have squealed a little in delight. It was the perfect refreshment to sip next to a fountain on a cloudless Houston day.
Our starter of Duck Spring Rolls were two rolls, cut in half on the diagonal, making four pieces. The wrapper was perfectly fried and crispy without even a hint of greasiness. For myself, the tender duck meat was still on the gamey side. It was helped by the soy dipping sauce which could have used just a bit more ginger. CRB, however, was moaning with pleasure and that’s not an exaggeration. The boy loves his duck. I let him have the extra pieces because he was just so happy.
Our entrees arrived just as we finished our appetizer, an indication of the good service. Our waiter was attentive without being obtrusive. I could see him scan his tables knowing when to approach or when to hang 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 to keep the heat tempered a wee bit but this sauce is not for wimps. There was a nice punch of heat but it still had the fruity sweetness of the habanero pepper. The sangria was a refreshing complement to the spicy sauce itself.
When my husband cut into his enchiladas, topped with crema and salsa verde, the smoky chicken inside made itself known with a woody fragrance that is a bit too much for my palate but a treat for his. There were also little cubes of potato in the enchilada and the red corn tortillas were very tender. The side of green beans were slightly firm and flavored strongly with garlic, which we both really liked.
Then, there was the corn pudding served as a side with the enchiladas. Perhaps sublime is an overused term but this corn pudding was just that. It was CRB’s dish so I only tasted a couple of bites but I could have eaten it all if I was a greedier spouse. He said it reminded him of the eggplant flan I made at home and it did have the same texture, like a souffle. It’s offered as a side dish as well and not to be missed.
The matchstick fries served with my sandwich, however, were a bummer. The seasoning on them was overly salty and they just were not very satisfying. We still ate them because fries are fries.
Since we had ordered an appetizer, we each had half of our meals to take home. Our server took them away to be boxed and we set to finishing our sangria. Though the courtyard was a little crammed with the addition of stand-up heaters, we were still comfortable and the tables were well-spaced. Because of the enclosed area, we could hear the conversations of the guests around us. There was a table next to us of attractive people with accents straight out of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, discussing the importance of confession to the church. There was an older couple, well-heeled, discussing things that well-heeled older couples discuss and a table of fashionable young women giggling and having a good time. We were a group of fortunate folks, escaping the confines of the office or home computer, to revel in a gorgeous afternoon.
As we left, the staff all thanked us and bid us goodbye. We congratulated ourselves on our dining choice that day, looking forward to more patio perfect days in the future.
1103 S. Shepherd
Lunch: Wednesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday through Saturday, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.