Ninfa-maniac

New Tex-Mex Restaurant Returns to Its Good Old Days

Ninfa's on Sixth

612 W. Sixth St., 476-0612
Fajita Hot-line 481-8808
Sun-Wed, 11am-10pm; Thu-Sat, 11am-3am



Ninfa's on Sixth

photograph by John Anderson

When Ninfa Laurenzo found herself widowed in the prime of life with five kids to raise, she gamely converted the family pizza and tortilla factory on Navigation Street in Houston into a 10-table restaurant and started cooking. The first Ninfa's opened 25 years ago this month. Before long, Houstonians were flocking there for the friendly family service, not to mention her unique avocado hot sauce, soft flour tortillas and the signature tacos al carbon. The tacos would ultimately become known all over the country as "fajitas." Yes, Mrs. Laurenzo was arguably the first restaurateur to popularize the Texas/Mexico border dish of tacos made from marinated, grilled beef skirt steak on restaurant menus.

The Navigation Street place prospered despite its funky location and in time, Ninfa's empire grew to include suburban outlets. The company eventually expanded into a chain with eateries in several Texas cities (including Austin) but along the way, the friendly, delicious family touch got lost. Success in chain restaurants is based on consistency of product and strict cost control and doesn't leave much room for creativity or old family recipes. The food at the chain outlets never really approached the quality of the first two family-controlled restaurants. That and a host of other problems forced the company into Chapter 11 in 1996. Late last year, the existing Ninfa's restaurants were purchased out of the bankruptcy court by Serrano's of Austin and they are working hard to make them profitable.

About the same time, siblings Tom and Gino Laurenzo formed a partnership with "Mama" Ninfa and opened an Austin restaurant in the downtown home of the late, unlamented Coyote Cafe. It's now the only Ninfa's owned and controlled by the Laurenzo family and, for my money, the only Ninfa's where the food evokes memories of the original Navigation Street and Westheimer locations. The reason for a history lesson as preamble to a restaurant review is to establish that the Laurenzo family knows good food and now that they are concentrating their efforts on one location, the quality is back.

I've been a devoted Ninfa's fan from the beginning. A meal made of several bowls of the addictive green sauce followed by a sizzling platter of grilled beef and a mountain of soft, hot, homemade flour tortillas was the highlight of every trip to Houston for many years. I was cautiously optimistic when the first Ninfa's (214 E. Anderson Lane, 832-1833) outlet opened here in 1993, but the uninspired food there never lived up to my Houston memories. Gladly, the new downtown eatery is operating in the fine old family tradition.

When a restaurant has built its reputation on certain menu items, they are almost always a good place to start. At Ninfa's, go for the grilled meats. It's possible to order fajitas of grilled beef, pork tenderloin or chicken breast already rolled into tacos ($6.95, $9.95) or on quarter-pound ($6.95), half-pound ($12.95), or one pound ($18.95) platters. The meats are complemented with smoky grilled onions, sour cream, guacamole, pico de gallo, and an unlimited supply of the divinely decadent homemade flour tortillas. The pork fajitas, made from toothsome slivers of grilled pork tenderloin, are my current favorite, but the beef and chicken are excellent as well. A word about the flour tortillas here. The secret to their softness and pliability appears to be in a high ratio of fat to flour but they are so wonderful you may never be able to accept the packaged variety again. FYI to fajita lovers: Ninfa's on Sixth will now deliver party packs of their famous fajitas to homes or offices in the central city.

Another excellent choice from the grill is the Parilla Mixta ($13.50, $16.95, $21.95), where diners can choose two, three, or four meats from a list that includes all three varieties of fajitas, huge grilled shrimp, baby back ribs slathered with habanero BBQ sauce, pollo asado, quail or pork carnitas. Each mixed grill platter arrives sizzling with the delicious onions, sides of rice, beans, guacamole, and the necessary tortillas. The carnitas preparation here is thin pork slices, (as opposed to the more common cubes), seasoned well and cooked to a crispy turn. The smoky little quail was perfectly tender and juicy.

If grilled meats are not your pleasure, there are traditional Tex-Mex combination plates with enchiladas, tamales, flautas, or tacos. On a recent visit, a friend inquired about the mole rojo enchiladas ($8.75), and the waiter graciously offered her a taste of the sauce to help her make a decision. The complex sauce revealed several layers of flavor, first slightly sweet, then smoky with a piquant pepper finish. It was napped over enchiladas of moist, tender chicken that were garnished with crumbles of white Oaxacan cheese. A vegetarian option among the enchiladas is the Espinacas Rodriguez ($8.75), delicate spinach enchiladas with jack cheese topped with a cilantro cream sauce. Another satisfying vegetarian choice is the Portobello Alambre ($10.95), plump, meaty mushroom pieces charbroiled Mexican style on a skewer, served with white rice, black beans, and guacamole.

Just in case you haven't already stuffed yourself with tortillas, the dessert menu offers several enticing confections. There's creamy Flan ($2.95) made from "Mama" Ninfa's family recipe and a huge scoop of Fried Ice Cream ($3.95) presented in a crisp, cinnamon-sugar dusted tortilla cup with cajeta caramel sauce. The ice cream dish is impressive, but it was smothered under a garnish of aerosol canned whipped topping, the only dessert misstep we saw. On one recent visit, the table shared an order of sopapillas ($2.95) and found that a few honey-drenched bites of the soft pillows of fried dough were just the right ending to our meal. Another night, we splurged on a slice of the Pastel de Tares Leches ($3.50), the traditional Mexican celebration dessert that is made with layers of almond cake soaked in cream, sweetened condensed milk and cajeta, and then frosted with whipped cream. The lightness is an illusion; it's deceptively decadent but truly delightful.

On each recent visit, the service at Ninfa's on Sixth has been friendly and attentive without being cloying, efficient without making diners feel rushed. The Laurenzo brothers are very much in evidence every day, greeting guests at the door and circulating in the dining room to make sure that customers are really satisfied. Their attention to detail is paying off. I hope they recognize it as a compliment when I say I hope they stay where they are and don't open any more restaurants. - Virginia B. Wood


Polvo's

2004 S. First St., 441-5446
Daily, 7am-10pm

I may become sated, my appetite may wane, or I may just have a change of heart, but for the time being, I wish to have as many meals as possible at Polvo's, the new Mexican restaurant on South First Street with the hand-painted sign of swooping blue and purple letters.

About Polvo's: First of all, everything on the menu is spelled wrong. This is by no means the sign of a bad restaurant. It can indicate a lack of care or inattention to detail (to say nothing of what it does to the nerves of editorial types), but at Polvo's it just means that the Hernandez and Linares families, who own and run the restaurant, are not native speakers of English, and that food is more important than appearance. This value system should not be second-guessed; it's easy to overlook a frumpy sign out front and the wildly stuccoed walls when they bring you a bowl of the chef's hot "ranchero" salsa. Even if you don't get the special salsa, you have three choices: the basic raw tomato, jalapeño, onion, and cilantro recipe, the thin, charred tomato and chile variety, or an orange-ish chile and tomatillo type.

Second, they always run out of everything. This can be very depressing, but frankly it's the only chance you'll have to waver from the Al Pastor Taco ($1.75) - arguably the best taco in South Central Texas - once you've tried it. But you'll be happy with the piccadillo or chicken, stewed pork, or probably even tongue taco if you try them on the homemade corn tortillas.

Polvo's also does breakfast plates of chorizo and eggs, machacado, chicharron, or just migas. You can get a breakfast taco for less than a dollar. They've got a variety of enchiladas and burritos, appetizers such as the mammoth bowl of Queso Flameado ($4.50) with chorizo and strips of poblano and onion hidden under the white cheese, and fresh tomato, onion, and jalapeños on top. And for the most part, everything is at taqueria prices.

There is, however, one page of dinner specials, which range from about $8 to $10.50. I tried the Steak Polvo's ($10.50) - beef pounded thin and blanketed by tomato, white cheese, cilantro, onions, and poblano, with sides of rice and refried, pork-infused black beans. A friend ordered the Pescado Veracruzano ($8.75), catfish and assorted vegetables in a fruity tomato-based sauce. Unfortunately, I found the beef more durable than is desirable (and had the same experience previously with the steak taco), and while my friend liked the catfish - and its lovely little salad of zucchini, banana, red cabbage, and tomato - she felt she was missing out on what she really wanted. In sum, we concluded that when you're at Polvo's, you're in good hands, but it's a shame to forfeit the opportunity to stock up on tacos.

- Meredith Phillips

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