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Mama Ninfa (and the Fajita)

Houston History Archives

“I don’t look at the business in terms of money. I look at it in terms of the fulfillment that I’ve been able to give myself and give to others.” — Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo

mama_ninfaI suppose we have to wait a few more weeks for summer to officially begin, but I can already hear the sizzle from the grill.  Savory beef, char-grilled.  Roasted peppers.  Savory, grilled onions.  The ice is clinking.  The condensation is beading and rolling down the sides of chilled and overflowing glasses.  Yes, those of us born of a certain era, and raised in Houston on a certain diet, know what a debt we owe to the one we called, affectionately, Mama Ninfa.

The year was 1973.  Struggling to keep the family tortilla factory solvent following the death of her husband, Maria Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo had a dream and opened up a little taco stand on the factory site as a way to bring in more revenue for the struggling business.

Fast forward through some difficulties getting bank loans for expansion, capital being pulled from unlikely sources, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Wildly successful, the coming decades would see a plethora of Ninfa’s restaurants sprout up in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, and anywhere else stomachs were grumbling for authentic Mexican food or evolving Tex-Mex cuisine.  All from this one, humble “taco stand,” 40+ restaurants would soon be serving diners under the “Ninfa’s” banner in 1990s, spreading and popularizing a cuisine now synonymous with the American Southwest.

Mama Ninfa would point out how she was an example of what anyone can do in America, the fulfillment of an elusive American Dream.  But, as she said, she did not view it solely in terms of the money, and over time the iconic family business and restaurants emblazoned with the “Ninfa’s” brand would sadly experience a rough period of financial difficulties replete with botched partnerships and business arrangements.  As one brand became licensed and spread thin, however, another emerged.  Her family continues their prominent role in the Houston restaurant scene through El Tiempo Cantina (including a location in the old neighborhood) and, their namesake, Laurenzo’s Prime Rib (it should be noted that Domenic Tommy Laurenzo, Ninfa’s late husband, had quite the mastery of Italian cuisine and this eclectic and expansive culinary repertoire seems to have continued the family tradition).menu_cover

Mama Ninfa passed away shortly after the turn of the century (June 17, 2001) and, while her culinary legacy lives on, ironically it may be that she is remembered as much for her charitable contributions and service to her community as she is for those mouth-watering smells and tastes.

An interesting resource here at the University of Houston Special Collections, the Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo Papers, as part of the Houston History Archives, provide a framework for this uniquely American, uniquely Houston, story of Ninfa’s.  The collection is highlighted by documents related to the family business interests, including business plans, correspondence, and some financial documents.  The more personal side of the family can be seen through the photographs in the collection (most from the 1980s and 1990s), personal correspondence, and documentation of her philanthropic engagement as well as general service to her community.  Be sure to consult the detailed finding aid for more information.

graciasOwners have changed, times have changed, but the “Original,” old-new, Ninfa’s still stands on the site of that bygone tortilla factory and their website still seeks to wake up the echoes of that old Ninfa’s charm, reminding visitors that down on Navigation Boulevard “Mama Ninfa first stuffed chargrilled sliced beef into a handmade flour tortilla and launched the national fajita craze.”

Oh, those incredible tacos al carbon (or, fajitas, if you prefer).  With apologies to our herbivore friends, what would summer be in Houston, if not for the fajita?  Thanks Mama Ninfa!

Not quite fully sated?  Come feast your eyes on the Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo Papers.

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