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Ninfa's could be a bright spot on a gray day

Image: Alice Levitt

When Houstonia managing editor Katharine Shilcutt welcomed me to Houston via Gastronaut and social media, she asked readers and friends where I needed to start my Houston culinary explorations. Not surprisingly, Ninfa's on Navigation was the most popular choice. Even my own Facebook friends who had lived in or visited Houston swore by Ninfa's. One friend, a native Houstonian New England Culinary Institute alum who now lives in Vermont, told me Ninfa's boasts the "best damn green sauce and house-made flour tortillas."

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Chips and that green sauce — red sauce, too

Image: Alice Levitt

So when I headed over to Ninfa's today for Tex-Mex Tuesday, my mouth was set for salsa verde ecstasy. The chips, kept in a giant heater until they're ready to be served, remained admirably light and crisp. The green sauce, however didn't meet my expectations. I couldn't help but think it was missing something. That something was the pucker of tomatillos and lime, the freshness of cilantro, anything besides the dominant sour cream and jalapeños. I preferred the smooth red salsa, smoky with chiles de arbol and that zip of cilantro the green sauce lacked.

The woman making tortillas next to the entrance is indeed doing fine work. The flour flatbread was thick enough to nearly cross over in the category of pita, amplifying its rustic, hand-made appeal. The creamy refried black beans were also excellent, outstripping the slightly mushy yellow rice at their side.

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Maybe I should have invited a few friends to share my single order of fajitas...

Image: Alice Levitt

All that was included in my $20 lunch, but the centerpiece was, of course, the mixed plate of steak and chicken fajitas. And this is where I'm going to get myself in trouble. I was expecting sizzling fireworks. The beef was a disarmingly lean-looking skirt steak which sent up smoke signals from its recent grilling when I smelled it. But a wimpy marinade meant it didn't taste like much else. The chicken was even less inspiring, with an exterior so wan it could almost have been steamed. I'll add points for crisp, fresh onions and peppers, but Ninfa's fajitas were not what I had hoped they'd be.

As I waited for my ultra friendly server to pack up my family-sized leftovers, I couldn't help but wonder if there were more flavorful fajitas to be tasted right on Navigation Blvd., where a good handful of other Mexican spots have sprouted up since Ninfa's 1973 debut. I've got some serious fajita tasting ahead of me. And when I find a new champion, I'll let you know about it right here, on a Tex-Mex Tuesday yet to come.

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