Reprinted from the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Houston, a project in cooperation with the Houston History Alliance.
For more information, visit www.HoustonHistoryAlliance.org.
Ninfa’s, a chain of Mexican restaurants founded by NINFA LAURENZO in 1973, is famed for introducing the United States to fajitas. In 1973 Ninfa opened a small restaurant in the front of the tortilla factory that she had operated with her husband, Domenic Thomas Laurenzo (Tommy), prior to his death in 1969. Unable to secure a loan from a bank, Laurenzo mortgaged her home and borrowed money from a friend in Mexico to start the ten-table eatery. The restaurant quickly attracted attention for its flavorful green sauce, its “Ninfarita” and its tacos al carbón (chargrilled beef in a tortilla), introduced as “fajitas.” Patrons also appreciated the friendly service of “Mama” Ninfa. Laurenzo capitalized on Houstonians’ cravings for ethnic food in the 1970s, and her enterprise quickly expanded. In 1976 she opened a second restaurant on Westheimer, and two more followed within the next two years. In 1980 the Ninfa’s chain had grown to a total of 13 restaurants, including one in San Antonio and four locations in Dallas, under the leadership of Ninfa Laurenzo’s oldest son, Roland.
Rapid expansion in the early 1980s led to a drop in quality in the new locations and increasing debt. In 1985 the overextended company joined with McFaddin Ventures, a nightclub operator, to open new chains in the hope that a partnership would diminish risk. Less than a year later, the partnership dissolved, and McFaddin sued the Laurenzos, while the Laurenzos counter-sued. The two parties settled out of court in 1988. With control of the company back in the hands of the Laurenzos, Roland Laurenzo created RioStar Corporation, a holding company, in 1989. Expanding beyond the Ninfa’s brand, RioStar opened fourteen Italian fast food restaurants (Bambolino’s Italian Drive-Thru), four Cajun restaurants and a seafood restaurant. By 1996 the company owned 38 restaurants and owed $2.8 million in debt to food and equipment suppliers. That year, RioStar declared bankruptcy. In 1998 Serranos Café and Cantina, an Austin-based company, took over RioStar and continued to operate the Ninfa’s locations. Founder Ninfa Laurenzo died in 2001. Members of the Laurenzo family remained in the food service industry in Houston and own several El Tiempo restaurants and Laurenzo’s Prime Rib.
Legacy Restaurants bought the original Ninfa’s location on Navigation Boulevard in 2006 and focused on returning the restaurant to its roots and preserving the Ninfa’s heritage. Advertising at Ninfa’s, both in the beginning and through today, has revolved around the story and image of Mama Ninfa. Her rags-to-riches narrative is evident on every menu and public relations piece. The legacy of Ninfa’s on Mexican restaurants can be seen in every menu featuring fajitas, and the Original Ninfa’s on Navigation continues to stand as a Houston institution.