Tasting Fajita History at Ninfa’s in Houston
Turns out there’s a lot more to this sizzling-platter favorite than fast-casual chain restaurant hype.
Turns out there’s a lot more to this sizzling-platter favorite than fast-casual chain restaurant hype.
Cook’s Country executive food editor Bryan Roof and I visited Houston, Texas in the name of recipe research to learn firsthand about the origin of the humble steak fajita. Here are some photographs and tales from our travels.
AMERICA'S FOOD LANDSCAPE IS a diverse one, and we here at Cook’s Country magazine have traveled far and wide to sample as much of it as possible. From soul food in Alabama to pierogi in Pittsburgh to blintzes in New York City, we’ve eaten a lot of the niche dishes that make the cuisine of each region of the country unique.
Not every dish is as firmly rooted in a particular place as, say, Carolina hash, and indeed there are some foods that seem to crop up everywhere in the nation, region notwithstanding. Take fajitas for example.
If you’ve been to a fast-casual chain restaurant in the last twenty-five years, you know what I mean: I’m talking about that ubiquitous sizzling platter of shrimp, chicken, or steak—or any combination of the three— that’s served with flour tortillas, sour cream, shredded cheese, pico de gallo, and guacamole (if you’re lucky). Add on some two-for-one apps and a comically large margarita, and you’ve got yourself the makings of a Chili’s commercial.
Here’s the thing: we know fajitas are good on principle. Grilled protein, peppers, and onions, served with tortillas and accompanied by a slew of salsas and other wonderful condiments? If that’s not universally appealing in its tasty simplicity, I don’t know what is. And all the glitz and glamor and happy-hour hot wing-hawking aside, there’s an authenticity to fajitas somewhere out there. But where? After all, they’ve been around forever, right?
As it turns out, fajitas aren’t as old as you may think. While Cook’s Country executive food editor Bryan Roof and I were planning a recent culinary expedition to Houston, TX, we kept getting recommendations from readers to check out the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation Boulevard.
Ninfa’s is a Tex-Mex establishment that claims to have introduced the fajita to the American restaurant vernacular back in the 1970s. It seemed like an incredible claim to make, sort of like if you met someone at a bar who was boasting about inventing the wheel, but since Ninfa’s was a mere twenty-minute drive from our hotel—this was lucky, given the vast and sprawling nature of the greater Houston metropolitan area—we knew we had to check it out.
As you walk through the door at Ninfa’s, you’re greeted by a portrait of the restaurant’s namesake: Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo. Better known as Mama Ninfa, Laurenzo opened the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation back in 1973. In its initial form, Ninfa’s was a tiny taco shop. In the years that have followed, Ninfa’s has grown into something decidedly larger scale than a tiny taco shop.
Before opening Ninfa’s, Laurenzo ran her own tortilla-making business, but it had fallen on hard times. Mama Ninfa’s husband Domenic passed away in 1969, and she was struggling to support their five children on the money she made from the tortilla business. In order to feed her family while still practicing a tortilla-adjacent craft, she began selling grilled steak tortillas, known then as tacos al carbon. This proved a much more successful venture than selling just tortillas.
Mama Ninfa wasn’t exactly breaking new ground: people had been making some version of this dish at home for years. Originally, tacos al carbon were a favorite of Mexican cowboys (or vaqueros) who ran cattle drives through Texas in the 1930s and were partially paid for their efforts in less popular cuts of meat—the ones that didn’t sell well at butcher shops—such as skirt steak.
The idea of grilling these specialty cuts remained an underground idea for years, but Mama Ninfa changed all that. With her tacos al carbon, Mama Ninfa introduced grilled skirt steak to Houston’s non-vaquero population. As the taco shop’s business picked up, the name of the dish changed to fajitas (a name for the cut of meat itself), and the original dining room was built up and added onto until Ninfa’s became the Tex-Mex mecca it is today.
True to Mama Ninfa’s tortilla shop origins, the next sight you see after the portrait of Mama Ninfa is a flour tortilla-making station behind a glass partition. One member of Ninfa’s staff is tasked with tortilla-making responsibilities: portioning the dough, rolling it into rounds, cooking each round on a flat-top griddle, and handing off baskets of freshly-made flour tortillas to the wait staff. This all happens in a space not much larger than a phone booth.
Bryan and I started slow: a few small plates, and a couple bottles of Mexican Coke. The Cokes were ice cold—the perfect antidote for the harsh Texas heat. (Mexican Coke—or MexiCoke, or Coca-Cola de México—which is imported to the US, is made with cane sugar, whereas Coca-Cola produced in the US is made with high-fructose corn syrup. Mexican Cokes are just plain better.) We rarely opt for sodas, but hey: When in Rome. And if you’re going to go to town, might as well go in a limo.
Next up: an order of queso flameado. A waiter set up a station on a propped-up tray to the side of our table, and began using two spoons to spin a pool of melted cheese into thick strands and twirl it around crumbled chorizo in a small dish. After a few minutes of mixing, he transferred the contents of the dish into four soft tortillas, spoonful by spoonful, which he then rolled up, arranged on a platter, and passed off in our direction.
The result: pure fatty indulgence. Melted cheese! Spicy chorizo! The comforting simplicity of a blistered flour tortilla! What’s not to like? (This would be great served alongside a really, really cold corn-adjunct lager.) I was beginning to regret my choice of beverage—but we were working, after all.
From here, Bryan and I pored over the menu, trying to decide whether to take the plunge on the fajitas. All of a sudden, we heard a telltale sizzle from the hallway leading to the kitchen, and we could feel everyone in the dining room nearly break their neck turning to look.
Lo and behold, there it was: a sizzling, smoking, glorious platter of steak, onions, and peppers. As the waiter dropped the dish at the table, he cautioned the diner: “Be careful, the plate’s hot.”
We were convinced—we’d come this far, and we weren’t going home without trying Mama Ninfa’s fajitas (alongside a couple other dishes as well).
Next thing we knew, our waiter was setting down our very own fajita platter. It was our turn to endure the gawking, hungry gaze of Ninfa’s lunch rush diners. Their collective gaze only intensified as the rest of our meal appeared.
Each entrée came with its own accompaniment of rice and long-cooked pinto beans and an array of toppings and condiments, and it looked like we’d either have to eat fast or ask our neighbors if we could borrow some real estate on their table.
Here’s the rundown, dish by dish:
Flautas. We probably didn’t need an appetizer, but we wanted an appetizer. These fried tortilla roll-ups filled with beans and cheese were the perfect vehicle for a scoop of guacamole or a cooling coating of crema. Why cooling, you ask?
Carne guisada, I answer. It’s a dish that struck me as sort of odd: imagine everything you know about a traditional beef stew with potatoes, then blow it up with ingredients more typical to Mexico than the frigid Northeastern United States. We’re talking cinnamon, tomatillos, tomatoes, spring onions, and poblanos, topped with a cilantro garnish to really drive the point home. I’d always thought of things in the vein of beef stew and pot roast as sort of staid and boring— they’re good, but they’re a lot of effort and I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way for them—but carne guisada is definitely something I’d dive into. Eat it with a spoon like a stew, or do a bit of fork magic and make yourself an improvised taco with the obligatory flour tortilla accompaniment if you feel like getting creative.
Finally, the main event: fajitas. With all the hype generated around this dish—first by the spectacle of fast-casual joints with almost as much scattershot variety on the menu as flair on the walls, and then by the entire lunch crowd rubbernecking in unison in a place known for bringing the dish into the big time—I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Let me say this: I’ve eaten a lot of steak fajitas, and the version at Ninfa’s is absolutely the best I have had. The grilled skirt steak came in slices that were much thicker than I’d imagined—nearly an inch at their widest—but were somehow incredibly tender and satisfyingly charred in spots, and came served on—what else?—a sizzling platter of almost-caramelized onions and blackened peppers. The whole ensemble was hard to avoid consuming as-was, but again, those homemade flour tortillas assured us that part of the appeal of fajitas is building your own.
Even with such simple components, this dish was way more than the sum of its parts: somehow, the steak itself was even beefier than usual, with an exceptional savoriness that we couldn’t quite identify. After asking our waiter for more info, the executive chef at Ninfa’s, Alex Padilla, whose mother worked in the kitchen when he was growing up, paid a visit to our table and clued us in.
His secret: a soy sauce-based marinade for the steak. Not a traditional method in Tex-Mex cuisine, but perfectly reasonable for anyone looking for a way to push their fajitas over the edge with a savory glutamate-based boost. A neat trick, to be sure—we’d have to remember that one when it came time to develop our own take on grilled steak fajitas.
With our hunger for fajitas and our thirst for knowledge satisfied, Bryan and I walked out onto the sidewalk along Navigation and into the warm Texas afternoon, happy that our skepticism had paid unexpected dividends. Sometimes it really pays to go back to where it all came from, and when it comes to grilled steak fajitas, Ninfa’s was the perfect place to start.
Read about some of our other trips around the country, in the name of recipe research:
What's your favorite regional specialty? Let us know in the comments and we might add it to our list of research destinations.