Though The Original Ninfa's on Navigation was denied a nomination for Outstanding Restaurant in the 2019 James Beard Awards, being on the list of semifinalists was a clear sign that the popular Tex-Mex restaurant had its place in the canon of critically regarded American food.
Rewind to a couple months ago, and there was something of a debate (more like many against one who isn't a food critic) raging about Tex-Mex's worthiness. Slandering queso and Tex-Mex is not a good look in these parts; we know that Tex-Mex is good, not just because of its flavor profiles but also for its rich heritage, as it's a prime example of the very fusion that we celebrate in Houston. Moreover, good Tex-Mex can be elevated to something respectable and worthy of critical approval, and that's very true at the Original Ninfa's on Navigation. Heck, if the James Beard Foundation thought it deserved to be a semifinalist, isn't that proof enough?
Well, if it isn't proof enough, allow me to illustrate why the Original Ninfa's, after all these years, still demands attention:
- The feeling. From the moment you pull on those red brass rungs to step into Ninfa's, you're whisked back to the early 1970s, when Mama Ninfa Laurenzo presided over the 10-table restaurant at her family tortilla factory. There are far more tables these days, but those first few seconds—whether standing in a line that'll move quickly, or before being swiftly shuttled to a table somewhere in the Ninfa's complex—are the ones you'll always want to remember. You'll smell the dough being flattened out. You'll hear the idle chatter and watch the hostess swiftly figure out the eternal nightly puzzle that is the Original Ninfa's seating configuration. Everything after that is your belly slowly filling up.
- The margarita. Each one I've had at Ninfa's—from the piquant La Picosita to the refreshing Prickly Pear to the original Ninfarita, a workmanlike drink I like frozen—is effortlessly smooth and clean. I could have multiple. We all could. But we probably shouldn't.
- The chile con queso. Of course the chile con queso. How it coats your corn chip. How the dots of chopped pepper brighten it up. How I could eat tubs of it and never need an entrée.
- The fajita. Of course, the fajita. Charred on the outside, tender inside, and given a salty kick with a soy sauce marinade, Ninfa's is the pinnacle of skirt steak. The denser tortillas aren't my favorite, but they're cooked perfectly—never dry—and can hold all the meat, onions, peppers, pico de gallo, and sour cream you can fill into it.
I've enjoyed my enchiladas there (al carbon beef is my special, unapologetic happy place), but I've yet to venture into the more eccentric dishes that have made chef Alex Padilla forever someone to watch in town. It'll happen soon, I'm sure. I spent my life loving the mid-Atlantic version of "Tex-Mex"—mediocre, too cheesy enchiladas, all-sizzle and no-skill fajitas, and a complete lack of queso. Since being introduced to Ninfa's, I've become very comfortable with the ultimate Houston comfort food, and I've realized that it truly is on another level here.