Just outside of a newly revived Bishop Arts district in Oak Cliff, Texas is a small family owned restaurant, VH Oak Cliff. VH offers locally sourced new American style fusion dishes for brunch, lunch and dinner prepared by Executive Chef Eric Brandt, whose cooking has graced the kitchens of the Ritz-Carlton, Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, and Bistro 31, to name a few. And if you find yourself at VH on a lucky day, you might even find owner Victor Hugo in the kitchen preparing something special off the menu.
While the casual and comforting food at VH is excellent, it’s not the only thing that keeps diners coming back. It’s the warm and inviting Southern hospitality that can be felt the second guests arrive until the moment they drive away from the crowded parking lot that make VH feel like home. In all honesty, the food could be stale Cheerios served in a Styrofoam bowl and I’d still return just because of the easy, welcoming atmosphere that makes you feel as if you’ve been a dear friend for years.
I sat down with Victor for an interview on a quiet Thursday afternoon, and had one of the most memorable and enjoyable experiences in my time as a blogger. Victor truly is charming and his passion for his work shines through when he talks. I learned so much I want to share it all with you! I really had trouble cutting this one down for a post, even though it’s still pretty long. But take some time and read it, because you won’t want to miss what Victor has to say. Although to really understand the true experience of VH, you have to get to Oak Cliff and feel it for yourself.
Now for some Q&A with VH owner Victor Hugo:
Tell me a little bit about yourself:
I grew up in Mexico, just east of Guadalajara. I left my house pretty early because I was playing soccer. I went to Europe for a little while. By the time I was 14, I was playing in Czech Republic, I played in Germany and France for a little bit and played for a team in Colombia for a bit. Then I hurt my knee and couldn’t play anymore. At the same time my grandma passed away and it refocused everything. I came to the states when I was 18.
How did you get our start in the restaurant industry?
I started in the restaurant business kind of by default. I came here and didn’t speak English, so I started as a dish washer. Then I worked at a slaughter house in Colorado and Kansas. I moved around a lot in my early years. But then I settled down in Santa Barbara, California. I worked in a couple of hotels. So my training really started in a hotel.
Eventually I got recruited by Cheesecake Factory and I opened stores for them all over the country. I worked with them for about 5 years.
Around 2008 I started getting noticed. Other people wanted me to open restaurants for them. I opened 7 different restaurants in Southern California for other people. I would just open a restaurant, get it going, get a good GM, assistant, and chef and then move on. But I always hated California.
So how did you get to be a restaurant owner in Texas?
Eventually I met my wife, she graduated from Pepperdine. She worked for me for a second, then I had to fire her because I wanted to date her. She grew up here in Dallas and I wanted to move out of California, so Dallas was the perfect place. So we moved after we had our first daughter. When we moved here I was very lucky to start working right away for Al Biernat. I managed Al Biernat’s for 6 or 7 years. Al was a great influence on me. If I owe anything to anybody, I think it’s him. He just really knows how to treat people. I worked with a lot of great people, but Al just knows customer service more than anybody else.
So then I left Al’s and I worked for Bistro 31 for about a year and a half and that was a great experience. But then this opportunity came about and I thought, ‘if I’ve been able to make restaurant successful for someone else, it’s my time.’ When I finally pulled the trigger on this, my wife was so happy. She knew if I never did it that I would always regret it. I think I was just waiting for the right opportunity.
Now we’ve been open for about a year and a half. We have great regulars, we’re doing really well. Now I can say that if I had to close the doors tomorrow because it didn’t work out, I’d be really happy because I did it.
Do you want to open another restaurant eventually?
Yeah. In fact, as we speak we are looking at a location in Richardson. My plan is in 3 or 5 years to have a VH Richardson.
Did you cook growing up?
I was cooking when I was 10. I grew up with my grandmother, she was a fantastic cook. Everything that I do, even the way I cut vegetables has to do with my grandmother and where I’ve been.
I’ve actually been told I’m a really good cook. But I prefer not to believe it because I like work the front of the house more than be in the kitchen, but anytime I can jump in the back of the kitchen. I’ll have a table of 4 comes in and say, ‘Victor cook for us,’ and I’ll go back there and cook whatever I want. But I like to have a chef. (Read more about Chef Eric below.)
Do you have a food philosophy?
For me, there’s no particular thing I want to do. If you don’t diversify, you won’t survive. We call it American food, or New American, but I have Asian influences because of my travels and I love Mexican, I grew up with Mexican food, but I also grew up eating American food the second half of my life.
If you look at our menu, we have a little bit of this and that, and that’s done purposefully. I don’t want to label ourselves as one thing or one type of food, because then you limit your guests.
Of course now you have gluten-free, and this and that and like it or not, you have to accommodate your guests. It’s all about your guest. We have a dish that’s a tofu and it’s completely vegan. If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would have that, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But if the demand is there, you’ve got to do it. And it’s actually a fantastic dish.
What else inspires you?
My girls. I have three daughters. There is actually a dish on our menu that’s called Mila’s Calamari Fries. When she was little and we would go to sushi restaurants, she would always get the Calamari, but she would get scared of the tentacles. So I would tell the waiter to bring me the calamari and I would cut them off for her. Then one day she was really sick and she wouldn’t eat anything and I asked her if I could make her anything that would make her feel better, what would it be? And she said Calamari. So I went to Whole Foods and got a calamari steak because I knew she didn’t like the tentacles and I made her Calamari fries. When I told her I was opening a restaurant, she said, ‘You’re going to put my calamari fries on there right?’ and I thought, ‘Yeah. That’s pretty cool.’ She inspired me to do that.
What are the most popular dish and cocktail on the menu?
The most popular dish is one the neither Chef or I wanted to put on the menu. And that’s the Red Wine Wagyu Pot Roast. We use locally sourced Wagyu shoulder from McKinney. We cook it for about 5 hours in red wine and then place it on top of crispy kale and hand ground white cheddar grits out of Waco. That by far is our best seller. And we literally put it on the menu 10 minutes before it was printed.
For the cocktails, our best seller is the Cinco Pico. It’s local vodka, Cinco Vodka, and we mash some basil and fresh jalapeno. And we take that with some fresh lemon and fresh lime and a little soda water. People love it. People will come in here for brunch and ask me to make them a pitcher.
Tell me a little bit about your chef.
Eric has been here since we started. He and I worked together at Bistro 31. We became really good friends. When we started construction on the restaurant, about a month later he showed up and said, ‘Hey, do you need a chef?’ It was a no-brainer.
Eric has a great palate. When it comes to food and wine, I trust him a lot. He is very good. The beauty about working with him is when I tell him something, he really understands what I’m talking about. And that’s really hard to find.
Do you cook at home when you aren’t at VH?
Yeah, it’s because of a need. If I don’t cook at least 3 times a week I go crazy. Just like reading. If I don’t pick up a book and read 3 times a week, I go nuts. On Sunday nights we have family night. We close the restaurant and I go home and cook for my wife and kids.
What is your favorite thing to make for your family?
Because of my kids and my wife being Italian, I make a lot of pasta. They love pasta. And we eat a lot of vegetables. If I could think of what we have in the house, its asparagus, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, bell peppers, carrots, onions, lots of onions. I don’t use much garlic. And always mushrooms.
How do you like your eggs?
Over easy, very soft. Just let the yolk run all over the place.
What do you want people to know about you and VH?
Restaurants are about service. I believe that in a service industry you don’t take anything personal. I don’t take anything personal. And understanding that we do whatever it takes. When somebody walks out of my restaurant unhappy, which is very seldom, that just kills me.
For me serving is the best thing you can do. It’s humbling. It’s fun. You take care of people you love or learn to love. I think there’s art in giving. It’s about people and about having a good day and I wouldn’t picture myself doing anything else. This is as beautiful as it gets.
Images are courtesy of VH and Sue Linke Photography. Thank you to Victor and Brianna for all of your help and hospitality!