“I thought I was going to die,” Chloe says. “We were all terrified, and our mouths were white from thirst.” In the morning, they paid smugglers to canoe them across a river into Thailand, where they were promptly arrested. They spent three days in a jail with prostitutes (“They were very nice to us!” Chloe recalls. “Eight little girls!”) before being transferred to a refugee camp. Hue Thuc soon started up her own business there, selling vegetables hut to hut. “I had to do something!” she says with a laugh. For two years, she carried 20 pails of water a day from a nearby river. “I’m very strong,” she says, offering her flexed biceps. “Feel my arm muscles!”
When, in 1979, the United States accepted the family as part of a refugee resettlement program, they knew almost nothing about Houston. Assuming all of America was wintry compared with Laos, Hue Thuc knitted each of the girls a red woolen sweater; wearing the sweaters when they arrived in the Texas heat, they nearly collapsed. “I was more worried than excited,” the mother remembers. “I went to the supermarket to buy American candy and grapes, and I sat in my room and ate them all!” At the time, the Vietnamese community was tiny, with only one small grocery store. As she took on three jobs to feed her eight daughters—on weekends dragooning the whole family to operate a snack bar at a market with Asian delicacies—she never imagined that Chloe would one day study at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York or return to Houston to run a popular boutique.
Mother and daughter maintain a close working relationship. “I always run my designs by my mom,” Chloe says. “She has an excellent eye.”
In Houston, food is a barometer of change. True to its culinary roots, there is no shortage of traditional barbecue venues in the city. But now chefs from all corners of the world are offering much more exotic fare.
“Have you ever eaten grasshoppers?” Hugo Ortega asks me, in the middle of a conversation about immigration. “They’re a real delicacy.”
Ortega’s high-end Mexican restaurant, Hugo’s, with its soaring ceiling, exposed wooden beams and bustling ambiance, is a surreal place to hear about his beginnings. His arrival in the city in 1984, at the age of 17, could not have been less auspicious. It was his third attempt to enter the United States, crossing the Rio Grande in an inflatable boat. The first two attempts had ended when he and four friends, led by a coyote who was promised $500 a head if they made it to their destination, had been caught by U.S. border patrols, cuffed and sent back to Mexico. On the third attempt, they managed to hide in a freight train to San Antonio, where they were smuggled to Houston with 15 others crammed in a remodeled Chevrolet Impala, with Ortega in the trunk. (“It was pretty scary, because I was smelling fumes,” he recalls.) By the time the friends were dropped off in downtown Houston, Ortega’s cousin could barely recognize them. “We had been going 17 days since we left our village, and we were so dirty and skinny,” Ortega says with a rueful smile. “I remember my cousin’s face, he didn’t believe it was us!”
Ortega spent almost four years bouncing from place to place in Houston, staying with different relatives and even sleeping on the streets for two weeks, until some friendly immigrants from El Salvador took pity on him and gave him a place to stay. They also got him a job as a dishwasher at the Backstreet Café, run by Tracy Vaught, the young Anglo restaurateur he would eventually marry. In the 1980s, interracial romance was still contentious, and they kept it secret from Vaught’s parents. Finally, he met her family one Thanksgiving in the starchy River Oaks Country Club—including the matriarch, Vaught’s grandmother, who was very warm and welcoming. (“I was the only Mexican there. At least the only Mexican being served!”) Ortega gained his green card during the amnesty of 1987, put himself through cooking school and today he and Vaught operate three leading Houston restaurants and have a 16-year-old daughter.
“I’ve come full circle,” Ortega says. “When I first arrived in Houston, I missed my grandmother’s cooking so bad! She would make tamales, mole, tortillas. And now here I am cooking the same food I had as a child.” He hands me morsels of octopus charred in lemon and chile, and escamoles, which are ant eggs, sautéed in butter and eaten with tamales. “God put me in this position. He said: This is your reward.”