Midway through her interview with Houstonia, Kady Lopez's phone rings. She fights through her jumble of several bags, including the plastic ones from Macy's she used to cover her shoes in the afternoon's downpour, before settling on a cloth one printed with the words, "Don't Wish for It, Work for It."
She mutes the phone and apologizes. "That was one of my customers," she explains. It turns out, about 50 regulars at the Original Ninfa's on Navigation have Lopez's cell number and call to make sure she'll be there when they have reservations. "They come from everywhere," she says. "Sometimes they see me here and they say, 'Oh my God, you’re still here!' Yes! 'Do you remember what I used to eat?' Of course."
She and her amazing memory have developed that following over 40 years at the storied restaurant, which she'll officially mark on November 25. Lopez, now 67, arrived in the United States from her native Honduras in 1970. She worked cleaning office buildings while taking English classes before spending five years working in a small Mexican restaurant called Mucho Mexico.
In the first three years that Ninfa's was open, she applied for a waitress job four times before she met Jack Laurenzo's wife, Jeanie, whose mother was also Honduran, and said Lopez had potential. Though she applied as a server, Lopez followed the track typical of Ninfa's at the time; she went through circuits as a cook, expediter and busgirl before finally being allowed to wait tables. "By that time, I knew everything around me," she recalls.
So much so, that her family began joining her in Houston. Her sister, Tina Lopez, began at Ninfa's as a tortilla maker ("She was working so hard. When I remember this, I wanna cry," says Kady), but has now been a server for most of her 35-year tenure at the restaurant. Two Lopez brothers also live in Houston. All have become citizens.
And for all of this, the single mom thanks her longtime employer. "I sent my kids to college, I bought two houses, everything I have is because of Ninfa’s," she says. "It’s such a blessing."
And after 40 years, she's still planning to keep repaying them. She's scaled back to working four days a week, but has no specific thoughts on retirement. Her father lived to 100, so Lopez could theoretically be bringing guests fajitas for another 30 years, though she claims she hopes not to survive past 80 to ensure she maintains full independence.
"I wish I could be 20 years younger to work more at this place. It’s my second home, really," she says, surveying her domain. "I have no idea how am I going to feel when I get older, but at 67 I still have the same energy, I think."
But times have changed. As the neighborhood as grown, Ninfa's has expanded around her, adding more and more rooms and most recently, patio areas. "We’ve been remodeling here and there," she says. "It’s like me—I’m getting old, but I still have to look pretty."
The menu has changed, too, but Lopez says her favorite thing to eat at her "second home" is chicken breast with rice and beans. And though Ninfa's chef of 10 years, Alex Padilla (whose mother worked with Lopez in the 1980s), has added wood-fired grills and ovens to bring the cuisine into the 21st century, there's no question someone will always be happy to make Lopez her simple comfort food.