How the Mighty Have Fallen: Ninfa's Finds Its Nadir with Maggie Rita's

Categories: Restaurant News

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What would Mama Ninfa say?
When news broke that three of the city's most popular Ninfa's locations had been sold to Maggie Rita's -- a Tex-Mex chain owned, in part, by comedian Carlos Mencia -- there was an uproar. Sure, Ninfa's hadn't been that great in a long time, but to many longtime Houstonians (me included), the deal with interloper Maggie Rita's may as well have been a pact with the devil.

Ninfa's is a vital part of Houston's culinary history, and Mama Ninfa Laurenzo is credited with introducing the fajita to not just Houston but the entire nation. At one point, the Tex-Mex chain had grown so large and so representative of Tex-Mex as a cuisine that there was a Ninfa's in Germany. In Germany.

The story of how Ninfa's was lost to outside operators and independent franchisees is long and tangled, but today only one Ninfa's location is still reflective of the restaurant chain when it was in its prime: The Original Ninfa's on Navigation. The rest of the Ninfa's that are still scattered across the country have varying levels of food and service, although most have fallen away significantly from the high-quality cuisine offered at the Original and last of the true Ninfa's empire.

The takeover of three Ninfa's locations in Houston by Maggie Rita's represents the latest and possibly saddest chapter in the Tex-Mex chain's history, and certainly the nadir of Ninfa's existence. That's because Maggie Rita's itself may well represent a nadir unto itself in the world of Houston Tex-Mex.

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Photos by Troy Fields
In this week's cafe review, I visited the Maggie Rita's on Shepherd hoping to find the sort of good, solid Tex-Mex food that Houston is known for. Instead, I found a jumbled, pan-Latin menu that featured "Ecuadorean ceviche" (which was campechana, in reality) and plastic-tasting arepas next to misguided "deconstructed salmon tamales" and grossly oversize chimichangas. To add insult to injury, the food cost twice as much as it should.

Even the drinks were despicable: Over the course of my visits, I tried three different margaritas -- something Maggie Rita's, as its name would indicate, touts as a specialty item -- and found them all to taste more of store-bought margarita mix than either tequila or lime juice. Forget the rest of the specialty cocktail list, too; it's just as bad.

I couldn't even find solace in the chips and salsa, but did eventually seek cold comfort in the one item I tried that didn't fully and completely suck: beef fajita tacos, which were served on respectable flour tortillas but which also set me back $17 for two.

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And let me be clear: While I was supremely annoyed that Maggie Rita's had quietly taken over the Ninfa's locations on Kirby, Post Oak and the Gulf Freeway, my intent wasn't to do a hit-job of a review on the place. Even though I grimaced after reading co-owner Santiago Moreno's shameful interview with Eater Houston in which he indicated that women weren't interested in food, I was simply embarrassed for him -- not offended.

Instead, I went into my first Maggie Rita's dinner determined to sort out the place for myself, wondering if I'd perhaps find that the place wasn't nearly the demon that everyone else made it out to be.

But with Maggie Rita's, it turns out that the devil you know is definitely better than the devil you don't.

Read more about Maggie Rita's in this week's cafe review.


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Location Info

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Ninfa's

2704 Navigation Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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17 comments
PhilButane
PhilButane

I went to the Gulf Freeway location just this last weekend and it was still called Ninfa's and still had the classic Ninfa's menu.  The food was actually quite good.  I asked the bartender if they were changing to Maggie Ritas and she told that they were going to remain Ninfa's.

 

uncsig
uncsig

I cannot even remotely begin to understand why in the world your review of Maggie Rita's puts Ninfa's in the headline.

 

First, the Ninfa's on Kirby, Post Oak and Gulf Freeway have had NO connection to the Laurenzo family in about a decade.

 

Second, Ninfa's on Navigation, which actually has a lot of the original ties to the family, has not been associated with the "franchised" Ninfa's for even longer than that.

 

Nevertheless, you besmirch the Ninfa's name by associating it with your review of a non-related, successor purchaser.

 

What a disservice to your readers.

 

My son tells me that you are correct in your assessment of how terrible the food is at Maggie Rita's. But it is Maggie Rita's that is terrible. Not Ninfa's.

 

Or do we need to start judging YOUR reviews in terms of how they pale to those of Robb Walsh whom you succeeded in this position. Though you are not Robb.  Nor he you.

Smedley
Smedley

I wanted to like Ninfa's on Kirby, but in two  consecutive visits, I had roaches run across my table in the middle of a meal.

SirRon
SirRon topcommenter

Speaking of old things we miss and new things we don't like, does anyone else want that useless "Now Trending" box on the upper right to go away? I really miss the "Most Read" and "Most Commented" widgets. Two steps back EOW.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

Anytime I see the word "nadir" I automatically think of Ricky Schroeder in Silver Spoons.  "Hey!  I got a nadir!"

 

(seeing if anyone else gets this...)

reedpappy
reedpappy

I've never been all that impressed with Ninfa's.  Though born in Houston in 1930, I didn't eat my first Mexican food until 1947 -- at Felix's on Westheimer.  I was enthralled, and went through half a dozen favorite places over the years.  Then in December 1974 I tried Ninfa's on Navigation, because that was where a group of co-workers wanted to go.  It wasn't bad, but it didn't live up to the hype, or to the 30-minute wait out in the weather just to get inside.  A few years ago my wife and I tried the Ninfa's on the Gulf Freeway, but felt it didn't compare to the Loma Linda on Telephone, our current favorite.  I'll wait until the change of ownership settles down, and then give Maggie Rita's on the Gulf Freeway a shot.  The best thing about Ninfa's was those commercials they used to run through the Christmas season.  They were pure art.

susanterrywilhelm
susanterrywilhelm

I already gave you my lengthy opinion in the comments section of your review.  Poor Mama Nina is rolling over in her grave!

ChetTheBellman
ChetTheBellman

Correction, NONE of the Ninfa's are owned or operated by the Laurenzo family. Navigation location is owned in part by the man who founded the Houston Press, Neil Morgan.

Xander
Xander

 @uncsig No, no, no. The Ninfa's locations were converted into Maggie Rita's (yes, we know that the family hasn't operated them for decades - none of the restaurants have been operated by the family for decades), so it DOES have to do with the Ninfa name.

etee56
etee56

 @Smedley If the *roaches* are even running away from the food...

robinjd
robinjd

 @kshilcutt The Ninfa's on Navigation is privately owned and first rate. It can't be compared in any way to the lackluster chain of Ninfa's.

SirRon
SirRon topcommenter

 @FattyFatBastard  I'll give you that, but it is interesting that you went to little Ricky Schroeder. /likebutton

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