Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught with the H Town Restaurant Group are responsible for everything from Hugo's in Montrose to Backstreet Cafe near River Oaks, so when my husband suggested we give the new URBE in Uptown Park a try, I should have been more excited.
We had an unexpected night out and I was thinking fancy, so the idea of a less upscale option in the former home of Cafe Express did not appeal. Plus I wanted a sit-down meal, not counter service.
However, when we pulled up in front of URBE I couldn't help but be charmed. Colorful murals decorated the exterior of the building and a quick peek at the adjoining patio showed people dining al fresco.
Since Houston's outdoor weather is now very bearable, we chose to eat outside and were served by waitstaff. We could have eaten inside too at one of the ample tables or taken advantage of the counter service. URBE is the kind of restaurant experience that seems to be whatever you want to make of it. Grab and go or sit and linger.
Then there was the food.
We started with the Tostadas de Cameron ($17), or shrimp toasts, which were also gluten-free. The shrimp were tender and flavorful with an accompaniment of refried beans, cream, fresh cheese, tomato, and greens. I had already eaten half of it before I remembered that I wanted to take a photo.
For the main course, I went with the Carnitas ($20), or the slow-cooked pork with corn tortillas which is generally a can't miss for me. That was also the case at URBE. The pork fell apart easily and the refried black beans and Mexican rice were excellent supporting characters. I was unfamiliar with salsa abañil but learned from MexConnect.com that it is popular with bricklayers in Mexico because it requires no cooking other than boiling the tomatillos, so they could make it with their midday meals. It was popular with me because it was delicious.
My husband got the Arrachera ($26) which generally is the skirt steak for street tacos. The wood-grilled Black Angus steak did come with tortillas as well as roasted pineapple tomatillo salsa, guacamole, and refried black beans, but my husband chose to eat it more like a traditional steak.
As a side, we ordered the Papas Bravas ($7) which I'm assuming is a riff on Patatas bravas, the popular Spanish tapas dish of potato wedges. This version came with guajillo pepper, chipotle aioli, and cotija cheese. It was a well-made match between roasted potatoes and french fries and we ate every last one.
The ambiance on the patio was ideal for date night. The lights periodically dimmed and brightened and turned different colors. It was subtle but effective in making you forget you were in a shopping plaza. Maybe the drinks helped with that too. I had a Sangria and my spouse enjoyed a Moscow mule.
You know a restaurant is good when you are prioritizing what you plan to get the next time you come. Tacos de Pescado and Elote Asado (Mexican Street Corn), I've got my eye on you. It's also rare to get an appetizer, two entrees, two drinks, and a side for $100, but we did.
If URBE is someone's introduction to Mexican street food, they are fortunate. Ortega has written a love letter to his home country. And we all get to reap the benefits.