Restaurants / Openings

Making Mexican Street Food the Star — Hugo Ortega’s First Fast Casual Houston Restaurant is Slow Prepared and Made From Scratch

Urbe Brings Something Different to Uptown Park

BY // 09.16.21

Acclaimed Houston restauranteur Tracy Vaught and her husband Hugo Ortega, the James Beard award-winning chef, opened their first fast casual restaurant in the former stead of another — the old Café Express space in Uptown Park. Welcome to the world of Urbe. The restaurant’s name is Spanish for “city,” fitting for a spot that is a culinary homage to the street foods of Mexico.

Ortega, who recalls selling gelatinas and flan from a neighborhood stand as a kid in Mexico, wrote a cookbook several years ago with his brother, pastry chef, Ruben Ortega, when they traveled to every state of their homeland to discover and document the humble fare they found.

“Street food is fast food at its finest,” Hugo Ortega says. “The only thing fast about it is how it is served. Mexican street food is actually slow food, prepared in someone’s home kitchen without shortcuts from family recipes handed down through the ages.”

Ortega says that street food is the purest form of genuine, authentic Mexican cuisine, and it’s why he pledges that everything at Urbe is made from scratch. And we mean everything. From the array of fresh salsas and moles to the house-roasted and ground masa for the tamales, chips and tortillas to the breads, pastries and desserts created in an on-site bakery.

Inside, the space is bright, light and open with a mod, playful mix of patterns. It was designed by architects Rudy Colby and Anthony Vu and designer Whitney Jahnke. Houston artist Carlos Hernandez was commissioned to create four large-scale paintings that depict Mexican masks, each representative of the four senses: taste, smell, hearing and sight. This visually compelling graphic is repeated on Urbe’s menus and place cards, too.

With nearly 270 combined seats and a full bar, Ortega’s fast fare can be eagerly devoured inside, outside, or packaged to go. At breakfast and lunch, simply check in with the host who will escort you to a table and give you a menu. Then at your leisure, make your way to the Mesa Grande — the expansive service counter with the open kitchen at its back — to order. For dinner, expect a full-service experience.

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True to tradition, you’ll find classic street fare served as sides (al lado) such as Mexican street corn (elote $6), a whole fresh cob slathered in mayo with melting cotija cheese and a dash of Tajin pepper, and a wood-roasted sweet potato (camote, $7) topped with a crema agridulce and sweet pepita crumbled brittle. Do not miss either.

An equally alluring oven-roasted plantain (platano rostizado, $8) is brought to the table steaming hot with crema dulce, queso fresco and bits of crisp plantain chips crumbled atop.

Urbe Baked Goods_6851 (Photo by Photos Paula Murphy)
At Urbe Each morning at breakfast, the chefs serve freshly baked traditional Mexican pastries like cuernitos, trenzas, orejas, chilindrinas, ochos, brindis , and berlinese (five for $18). (Photo by Photos Paula Murphy)

Each morning at breakfast, the chefs serve freshly baked traditional Mexican pastries like cuernitos, trenzas, orejas, chilindrinas, ochos, brindis and berlinese (five for $18), and not so traditional ones, like croissants. While those who dine on the savory side can find the requisite breakfast tacos and mightier combo plates like Huevos a la Mexicana ($12) — scrambled eggs with onion, tomato, and jalapeno, served with beans, roasted potatoes — and mollete de aguacate ($11) — Ortega’s answer to Mexican avocado toast, topped with refried beans, chihuahua cheese — and a sunny-side-up egg if you desire.

“Street food is fast food at its finest. The only thing fast about it is how it is served. — Hugo Ortega

The menu includes a fresco section with chilled seafood items and salads at weekend brunch, lunch and dinner. Dine on diablitos de ostiones ($17), a half dozen raw oysters topped with cold, boiled chipotle spiced shrimp or perhaps their chilled campechana estilo D.F. ($18) — shrimp, oysters, octopus, tomato, onion, jalapeño and — it’s not so secret ingredient — orange Fanta soda.

You’ll also find Ortega’s answer to the popular bowl concept. Though not technically street fare, bol Mexicano ($12 to $17) is an easy grab-and-go dish made up of a mélange of Mexican rice, black beans, greens and avocado with grilled chicken or skirt steak.

Urbe, 1101 Uptown Park, Suite 12, urbehouston.com. Open breakfast, lunch and dinner; closed Mondays.

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