Among Houston institutions, Backstreet Cafe stands out as the foundation of what’s become one of the most celebrated restaurant groups in Houston and in Texas. Hospitality power couple Tracy Vaught and Hugo Ortega have carefully expanded their H-Town Restaurant Group to include five concepts over the years, building off the charming decades-old bistro nestled on the edge of River Oaks.

For more than two decades, one man has been a fixture at Backstreet Cafe—greeting guests with an affable smile and a welcoming, easygoing demeanor. Nelson Efren Herrera has worked several roles at Backstreet and befriended multiple generations of the restaurant’s regulars. The Mexico native who ended up in Houston by chance has built a family and a home in the city, and with the company that helped jumpstart his career. Today, Efren is a manager at Backstreet, runs the wine program, and is part of the soul of this beloved neighborhood restaurant.

We spoke with him about his personal journey, what he enjoys most about hospitality, his love of wine and more.

Can you describe how you arrived in Houston?

I was born and raised in Puebla, Mexico, and moved to Boston at around age 24 – I had friends there. I worked as the manager of a toffee factory. After a year, I moved to New York City, making food deliveries on bike for about six months. I returned to Puebla and worked as graphic designer for three years, and I was supposed to move back to Boston but the place where I was going to stay had a fire and I had no place to live. My plane had stopped in Houston, so I decided to stay for two months waiting to see if the place in Boston would be ready.

What was your first job here?

My first job in Houston was as a back waiter at Brennan’s of Houston. I love soccer and was playing soccer every day, and met lots of friends, including Hugo Ortega. He mentioned to me that he was opening a new restaurant, and they were hiring. Since I was only working lunch at Brennan’s, I decided to apply. I started at Hugo’s right when they opened in 2002 as a food runner. I did that for a year and then Hugo offered me a job as bartender at Backstreet Cafe and I thought it could be fun, so I took it. Backstreet Cafe has been my work home ever since.

At Backstreet, I moved from bartender to manager to server and back to manager again.

Having previously worked in Boston and other places, you could have gone on to another city. What made you decide to stay here?

There is a lot to love and enjoy in Houston, most especially people and the opportunities that the city offers. I liked that it was a close to Mexico – that I could fly there quickly and easily and be in my hometown in just four hours. It is also very affordable and there are lots of things that you can do outdoors, lots of live concerts, the arts are amazing – so much!

Talk about your experience when you began working at Hugo’s.

When I started working at Hugo’s, I immediately felt comfortable. I loved that it was a very professional team, very friendly and welcoming – many people knew each other from working together at Tracy and Hugo’s first restaurant, which is Backstreet, or other places around town. I felt very early on that I could grow quickly there professionally, that I could learn a lot from all the other team members, and I felt valued and respected. Tracy and Hugo gave – and continue to give – opportunities to all but especially those with initiative. I was eager to make my mark and grow in the hospitality industry in Houston, so I took the opportunity seriously.

I understand you were interested in wine early on in your career. What drove that interest and where has it taken you?

It was when I came to Backstreet Cafe that my interest in wine really moved to a new level. I had only basic knowledge when I started, but Tracy had local wine expert Guy Stout come to the restaurant regularly to lead classes and tastings on wine to educate the staff, and it was so eye-opening and beneficial to all of us. I remember in one of the first classes with Guy, he told us to smell the wine and describe what aromas we could identify. When I told him what I smelled in the wine, he said to me, “WOW, you could smell all of that? That is impressive!” He asked if I had ever used any of the special wine smelling kits to practice and I said I had never heard of that.

I discovered I had some natural talent, especially for identifying aromas, and got excited to keep learning and exploring. I didn’t really drink much wine previously, but this started a whole new chapter for me. I now run the wine program at Backstreet and I love it. For the record, I am more of a “red guy” and a bubbles drinker.

What do you think makes Houston’s culinary community unique?

When I was living in Boston, nobody sold tortillas. It made me homesick – it is such a simple food item but so integral to Mexican food. I called a friend in New York, and they sent me some frozen ones in the mail, ha! When I came to Houston, every restaurant, to me, seemed to have a touch of Mexican cuisine in it, and it felt familiar and comfortable. In general, the amazing diversity of our citizens creates a melting pot like no other. You can enjoy a different global cuisine every night of the week!

What do you enjoy most about your job now?

The customers are a big part of what I enjoy about my job. After 21 years, they are like family to me, and they treat me like family as well. Here at Backstreet Cafe, we have the honor to see people bring the next generations of their family to dine with us – it is very special. When you really enjoy your job, it isn’t something you dread. Like any job, it can be stressful sometimes, but it is never unpleasant. I love coming to work, being with my coworkers and customers, and sharing my love of and passion for food, wine and service.

COVID was such an interesting and challenging time for all of us, but restaurants definitely felt it acutely. Our role is to be a gathering place, to welcome people and to serve them. We couldn’t do any of that. Having to close for regular business was heartbreaking for all of us, and I was so grateful that I was able to keep my job as we pivoted and learned a new normal during those years, especially at the start. As we were able to do to-go food, our customers showed us so much support…Backstreet Cafe is a home away from home for our diners, and we all craved that feeling of community and togetherness especially then. Backstreet sort of flourished at that time – it showed and strengthened the connection of our customers to the place, the food and staff.

How have you developed relationships with customers through the years?

When I started here as bartender, a manager said, “When you talk with the customers, you will make more money. Read and watch the news for topics to share and discuss and make connections.” It was true, that helped, but quite quickly we made connections on a personal level, talking about our travels, our families, our lives. It was just natural. I have a personal connection with so many of our diners, and many have my mobile number if they have a special request, need help with a special occasion, etc. I am fortunate to see multiple generations of families come to Backstreet, and I love the connection that I have.

Also, many of us now follow each other on social media. The connection with customers via social media and the importance and immediacy of getting the word out really became evident during COVID – we put out the word and they responded. And we continue to be connected.

What do you do in your down time?

I love to cycle and have been doing so for 10 years. After decades of playing soccer, my ligaments were really bothering me and made it difficult to play. The doctor said to do a different sport to work different muscles and joints, and he suggested cycling. When I first started, I could only do five miles, now I do at least 100 miles per ride, and I ride four days per week.

When I’m not working or riding, I enjoy spending time with my family, especially my granddaughter Victoria. She loves being outdoors, especially Levy Park.

What are you most excited about as you look forward?

I am excited to be going to Oregon Pinot Camp this summer, which is an intensive seminar on the amazing wines of Oregon.

I am also starting work studying for my Level 1 certification from The Court of Master Sommeliers.

What word or phrase best describes Houston for you?

After my family, Houston is the second-best thing that has happened in my life. I guess if I have to pick one word that describes Houston for me, it is home.

Written by A.J. Mistretta 

Photos by Daniel Ortiz 

Community Impact & Outreach