Meaning “city,” URBE is the fifth concept created by celebrated Restaurateur Tracy Vaught and James Beard Award-winning Executive Chef Hugo Ortega of H Town Restaurant Group. It is so named to both honor the cities of Mexico where street food plays such an integral part and as a nod to the city Houston – or H Town – where the restaurant group was founded and operates.
In Mexico City and other larger cities throughout Mexico, life moves at a fast pace yet old world Mexico is everywhere, especially in the air. Aromas of street food fill every city block, and at any corner, at any time of day, one can find something delicious to eat. Mercados filled with an endless variety of food stalls offer every dish imaginable. The food is as varied as the Mexican people themselves, with dishes from every region and every indigenous culture of the country. Street food is integral to the city and to the Mexican way of life.
Mexican street food is actually “slow food,” prepared in someone’s home kitchen with little to no shortcuts, from family recipes handed down through the ages. The food is cooked on the outskirts of the towns and villages, all through the night in kitchen ovens or in deep earthen pitsand brought into city and town centers each morning. Rich with tradition and heritage, street food is the purest form of true, authentic Mexican cuisine. It is what chefs espouse today, “grow local, cook local,” which is nothing new for Mexican cooks. This is how they have been preparing food for centuries. Honoring the men and women who have kept the culinary traditions alive through their street food is important to us. They are the keepers of these traditions and will pass down their knowledge to the next generations. We at H Town Restaurant Group hope to do the same, and this is what URBE celebrates.
URBE’s menu features street food from across all states of Mexico, inspired by travels and also the hometowns of H Town team members, including Mexico City, Oaxaca, Jalisco and Puebla. Chicharrones,Elote, Camotes, Birria, Barbacoa, Tacos al Pastor, Conchas, Berlinesas, Huaraches, Tortas, Tlayudas, Cemitas, Churros, Quesadillas, Carnitas. These street food classics are all on URBE’s menu, plus much more, including modern interpretations of favorites. There are also cocktails, wine, coffees, horchata, and, in true street food fashion, a big emphasis on food to-go – ¡para llevar!
URBE’s cocktails are reflective of the bold, bright flavors and colors of Mexico’s street stalls and mercados -margaritas, micheladas, sangrias, palomas, shots, craft beers y mas. We still believe the best margarita is made with fresh lime and shaken to order, but excited to delve into frozen cocktails for the first time at one of our concepts as they are a perfect street food libation. A variety of beers and a small-but-whimsical selection of wines rounds out the offerings.
Being open for breakfast means we are taking things even further, and that includes café, coffee. We feature Houston-roasted beans for our espresso and coffee drinks, both cold and warm, and utilize the flavors of Mexico such as vivid house-made caramels, syrups and seasonings to accentuate our fantastic coffee. We will also have cold brew coffees and teas, and nitrous system versions of iconic Mexican beverages like horchata and cafe de olla.
While the restaurant has the same quality and professionalism as the established concepts, URBE also signals several firsts for the group: its first casual/fast-casual concept; the first concept to be open for breakfast; the first to have a robust bread and pastry program; first to serve frozen drinks; the first to have a coffee program; the first to include Vaught and Ortega’s daughter Sophia as part of the team; and, although there have been many female cooks and chefs in the kitchens throughout the years, the first concept with a female executive chef.
URBE’s modern Mexican space is filled with natural light and dotted with a combination of banquette, table and tall-bar seating, and features graphic black & white tiles as well as colorful original street art by Houston artist Carlos Hernandez depicting 4 senses. Large vintage industrial light fixtures are featured inside and out, and large terracotta bricks frame the kitchen entrance and bar front. There is outside bar seating under a comfortable breezeway, and we have a separate entrance and service area for to-go and pick-up orders. A zigzag fabric ceiling installation (called a “Ziggy”) adds texture and absorbs sound. Centered in the room is the Mesa Grande, a large central bar and food pod fronted with linear, multi-colored patchwork tiles and topped with white stone, from which to-go orders, breads and pastries and drinks are served. (Designer: Whitney Jahnke of Nest & Cot. Architects: Rudy Colby of Colby Design and Anthony Vu of 2X Studio.)
For breakfast, lunch and brunch guests order at Mesa Grande and food is delivered. Dinner is full-service.
URBE is not Chef Hugo’s first experience with street food. As a young boy, Hugo and his cousin, David, sold street foods such as gelatinas and flan from a neighborhood stand, and on the streets, they sold chicle (gum) to motorists. Later, they traveled several hours by bus to the Merced Market to buy fruits and vegetables such as nopales, beets, oranges, celery, spinach and apples for their juice stand. When they got a bit older, their grandfather made them wooden shoeshine kits so they could go to town and sell shoeshines to pedestrians. And when Hugo and his family moved to the country to live with their grandmother Delia, a revered mole maker, and her daughter Odelia, a bread baker, the family had a stall in the small town on weekends selling guisados and wood oven-baked bread.
Opening URBE is a natural progression of the life of Hugo and Ruben Ortega, executive pastry chef for H Town Restaurant Group. For the brothers, it has been a journey of rediscovery filled with memories. The duo wrote a cookbook on street food after traveling throughout Mexico and re-discovering and experiencing the foods of each region. The team agreed that opening a casual street food concept felt like the obvious next step, but the actual next steps were opening Caracol, a Coastal Mexican Kitchen, and Xochi, celebrating the food and culture of Oaxaca, but we never forgot our desire to open a street food concept. Welcome to URBE!