Chef Alex Padilla spent much of his early childhood in the same building he now spends most of his work days: The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation. In the iconic business’s early days, when Mama Ninfa ran a small tortilla factory turned Tex-Mex kitchen, Padilla’s mother was one of the women on the line, pressing and packaging flour tortillas for fajitas and tacos al carbon.
Today, Chef Alex, as he’s affectionately called, is the corporate executive chef of Legacy Restaurants, the company that now owns The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, as well as Antone’s Famous Po’ Boys and other Ninfa's concepts. But Padilla still remembers those days on Navigation as a child, as well as the historic taco stand down the street where he has eaten breakfast for decades: Villa Arcos.
“They’re right in the barrio, and they’ve been there forever,” says Padilla. “An old school hole-in-the-wall place.” Villa Arcos, which since 1977 has been an East End institution, is one of the best known breakfast taco joints in Texas. The small red building is alive with the rich history and Mexican-American culture of the very neighborhood it, along with The Original Ninfa’s, now seem to represent.
“I normally get the potato tacos,” he says, a gleam in his eye. “My kids love them. My son orders the chorizo and egg.” The admiration, at least back in the day, was mutual. Padilla remembers meeting the late Yolanda Black Navarro (late, longtime owner of Villa Arcos) at Ninfa’s as a youngster, recalling that she’d be at the restaurant regularly.
While the area has changed drastically over the years, with a gentrified EaDo and ever-developing downtown expanding further into the once forgotten barrios of East Houston, both Ninfa’s and Villa Arcos hold tight to a local history that’s quietly vanishing around them.
But it’s not all flour tortillas and eggs for this veteran of Houston Tex-Mex. Like any self-respecting Houstonian, Padilla enjoys the occasional, if not regular, bowl of pho—a dish as essential to the cultural fabric of this city as breakfast tacos and fajitas.
"I love their beef pho," says Padilla of Heights Asian Cafe, an understated Chinese and Vietnamese cafe in the heart of the Heights. The charms of this restaurant with an Americanized menu lie in its neighborhood familiarity and feel-good classics.
Padilla admits he's not much for fine dining after a 12-hour shift in the city's most iconic Tex-Mex kitchen. When he's not rushing home to eat cold spaghetti, much to the chagrin of his wife, he might indulge in some Asian-American food.
"I like simple foods," says Padilla. A common sentiment among the perpetually tired and overworked souls who keep this and any city fed, often forgetting to do so for themselves.