Some dear friends invited Ann and I out for dinner a couple of weekends ago. They love food as much as we do, so we always have a blast when we go out to dinner with them. They suggested that we go the the original Ninfa’s on Navigation Boulevard. I used to love Ninfa’s back in the 80’s and 90’s. The founder Ninfa Rodríguez Laurenzo pretty much single-handedly made the Fajita what it is today. But after growing the company too fast, she sold her empire to Serrano’s Cafe, an Austin based company. Unfortunately, the quality and consistency of the restaurants really went down hill. I had always heard the the original location had maintained the high quality food “Mama Ninfa” was know for, so I was happy to give it a try.
Houston’s EaDo (East Downtown) has gotten very trendy since Mama Ninfa started her tortilla factory there in 1973. In fact, Ninfa only decided to start a restaurant because she needed to raise money to buy new tortilla-making equipment. And raise money she did, turning her small tortilla factory into an empire and becoming a legend in the Houston restaurant scene. I once heard that John Travolta had his own table in the Westheimer location while he was filming Urban Cowboy, and I read it on Wikipedia while researching this article, so it must be true.
In 2006, Neil Morgan, the owner of Antone’s po boy chain bought the Navigation location, and named Alex Padilla as his Executive Chef. Padilla worked his way up through several high-end restaurants in California working under the likes of Nancy Oakes. So how does that make him qualified to make Tex-Mex? Well, it just so happens that Padilla is a native Houstonian, and his mother was a line cook at the original Ninfa’s. How’s that for a small world.
Ninfa’s is surrounded by other Tex-Mex places including an El Tiempo, which is ironically owned by the Lorenzo family.
Walking into the restaurant does feel like you stepped back into the 70’s. The restaurant was packed. I’m glad our friends made reservations, so we were seated right away.
The menu was loaded with what you would expect at a Tex-Mex restaurant—tacos, enchiladas, chimichangas, etc. I even recognized some of my favorite combo meals like the “El Henry” a cheese enchilada, beef tamale, and a crispy beef taco. That was one of my favorites in the 90’s. This time, those carbs were a no no for my paleo diet.
The menu also had plenty of sea food dishes, and what really intrigued me was the Ribeye Mole. That’s right, a mole rubbed ribeye. How awesome does that sound? But hey, I hadn’t been to a Ninfa’s in over twenty years. I knew what I wanted: Fajitas. Fajitas are the dish that put Mama Ninfa on the map. Their portions are large, so Ann and I split the “medium” size, which is 1/2 pound, but I added a grilled quail to our plate for good measure. Could they be as good as I remembered? I could only wait and see.
In the meantime, we ordered ceviche and chille con queso for the table.
The ceviche was new to the menu I believe, but it could be that 90’s Richard was not into eating raw fish and just never ordered it.
The Ceviche looked so good we jumped in before I photographed it, sorry, but not really because it was fantastic. It was loaded with big chunks of red fish and shrimp. It was a good thing four of us were eating, because we might have been stuffed before our main course came.
The chile con queso was good, but not quite as good as I remembered. I hoped that this was not a sign of things to come with my fajita order.
When the order came to our table, I have to say the sizzling, steaming platter smelled like old times. Unlike the old days, I skipped the beans, rice and tortillas to stay low-carb. I couldn’t wait to dive in. I heaped the meat and onions, pico de gallo, and guacamole on my plate. It was as good as I remembered. The quail was a nice touch also, although Ann was a bit turned off by the decapitated little bird laying on my plate. I was happy to eat it first to get it out of her view. The fajita meat was tender and flavorful. I think they still must use the same marinade as they did in the old days.
Ninfa’s on navigation is the real-deal. For those of you that want an authentic Tex-Mex meal, get in to this historic little restaurant on Navigation boulevard. Next time, I’m going to try the Ribeye Mole.