The First Families of Houston Food: Why We Eat the Way We Eat in H-Town


The Laurenzos

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Photo courtesy Ninfa's
Mama Ninfa outside her restaurant.
Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo moved to Houston in 1949 with her husband, Domenic Tommy Laurenzo, and the two started a life selling tortillas and pizza dough out of a little shop on Navigation. Domenic died young, leaving Ninfa a widow at 46 with children to look after and a business that didn't make much money.

In 1973, Ninfa established Ninfa's restaurant in the front of the tortilla factory. Using loans from a friend in Mexico, Ninfa was able to open a 40-seat restaurant that almost succumbed to a fire a week after opening. But Ninfa rallied, and the restaurant in the bad part of town became known for its cheap, hearty Tex-Mex and its ever-welcoming owner and hostess.

It was the fajitas that initially made Ninfa -- now referred to lovingly as Mama Ninfa -- famous in Houston, and then throughout Texas and the rest of the country. The restaurant became so popular that Ninfa was able to close the tortilla factory, expand the first location and open a second on Westheimer in 1975.

By 1980, the Ninfa's boom was in full swing. There were seven restaurants in Houston, so the family decided to expand to other cities. Branches in Dallas and San Antonio were less successful, but in 1983 Ninfa's empire was the largest Hispanic-owned business in Houston.

Things started to go downhill in 1985, when Ninfa's partnered with McFaddin Ventures to protect themselves from some of the risks involved in opening new restaurants. Not long after deals were signed, the relationship between the Laurenzos and McFaddin soured, with McFaddin suing the Laurenzos for allegedly trying to hurt service at McFaddin restaurants. The Laurenzos counter-sued, and both parties eventually agreed to a settlement.

Moving past the litigation, the Laurenzos founded RioStar Corporation, which set about expanding the Ninfa's name even further -- all the way to Leipzig, Germany. Unfortunately, the quick expansion caused RioStar to build up major debts with Sysco, the primary supplier of non-food goods for the restaurants. In 1996, the restaurant group, which now owned 40 restaurants around the country, was sued by Sysco for $2.8 million, which forced RioStar to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

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Photo courtesy El Tiempo
Mama Ninfa's legacy lives on through El Tiempo.
Two years later, Serrano's Cafe out of Austin bought RioStar, and the Laurenzos, who had worked so tirelessly to create an empire, were no longer involved with Ninfa's. In spite of agreeing to a non-compete clause in the deal, in which Ninfa may "not engage, directly or indirectly, as a consultant, employee, officer, director, owner, shareholder or investor in any business which owns, operates, provides or designs restaurants, cafes, bars, catering services, food delivery, or any other food business...," the Laurenzos opened El Tiempo on Richmond in 1998. In name, Ninfa was not involved, but as the Houston Press reported that same year, that didn't seem to be quite the case in practice.

Still, El Tiempo thrived, and it now has five locations throughout Houston, including one right next to the original Ninfa's on Navigation. The family also owns Laurenzo's, a steak and seafood restaurant on Washington.

Mama Ninfa passed away from bone cancer in 2001, but her legacy lives on through El Tiempo and all the fajitas in Texas. As a sidenote, Ninfa's daughter, Phyllis, married Tony Mandola, so now the Laurenzos and Mandolas are related as well.

Location Info

Churrascos

2055 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Americas Restaurant

2040 W. Gray St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Amazon Grill

5114 Kirby Drive, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Damian's Cucina Italiana

3011 Smith St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Mandola's Deli

4105 Leeland, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Pappasito's

6445 Richmond, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Ciao Bello

5161 San Felipe St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Tony's Restaurant

3755 Richmond Ave., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Pappas Burger

5815 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Vallone's

800 Gessner, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Yia Yia Mary's Greek Kitchen

4747 San Felipe, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen

2525 S. Loop W., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Molina's Cantina

4720 Washington Ave., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Pappas Seafood

3001 S. Shepherd Drive, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Tony Mandola's Gulf Coast Kitchen

1212 Waugh Dr., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Paulie's

1834 Westheimer, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Laurenzo's

4412 Washington, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

El Tiempo Cantina

3130 Richmond Ave., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Camerata at Paulie's

1834 Westheimer Road, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Ninfa's

2704 Navigation Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

My Voice Nation Help
25 comments
jberlat1
jberlat1

Never been a fan of Molina's. 

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

Interesting that this article comes out roughly a few weeks after I had suggested it to someone...


Thankfully you didn't go nearly as deep into it as I plan to.

fidelio
fidelio

You overlook the Lebanese and Middle Eastern folks: Droubi brothers, Jamails, Dimassis etc...

james.brock
james.brock

Thanks to all the readers who have weighed in with their comments and stories about the rich histories of the many families whose hard work and efforts helped make Houston the fine food city it is today. Their legacies are rich and make for some great reading, and are sure to inspire the food families of the future.

In addition, a call to McDonald's tells us that there are 264 locations of the fast-food chain in the Houston area.

robokat
robokat

I think it's worth mentioning The Grocers Supply family aka.,The Levits and their son Benjy Levit...the owner of Benjy's.

tibare
tibare

I really, really miss PAPPAS GRILL that was on the feeder of 59 in Meadows Place.  They had the best food, salad bar and were very popular for their Sunday breakfast brunch !  I wish that they would open another one.



WestSideBob
WestSideBob topcommenter

I do miss the old Frankie B's on Kirby and their Chicken Parm.  Mandola's Deli does the best Italian Beef in Houston.  ( BTW ... I'm not related to anyone in the family )

SusanDS
SusanDS

I'll go back even further. Never mentioned  George Dentler's Pier 21. Started in 1938 and purchased by Ellis Dentler of Dentler Maid (Dentler Potato chips) as an investment because he loved to eat there, Passed away in 1948 which left my dad, George Dentler to start his career in one of the finest seafood restaurants in the city of Houston.It was located at the corner of Fannin and Braeswood across from the Oiler practice field. We had the first lobster tank in the city.It is nice to see a picture of Ninfa, she was such a fine lady and business woman. My brother Hank is also a St. Thomas Alum. Start researching back and you will be surprised of how much influence the restaurant industry in Houston not only had on the foods we enjoy today but how important they were to the social scene back in the day. Keep up the good work. Susan


SusanDS
SusanDS

I'll go back even further. Never mentioned  George Dentler's Pier 21. Started in 1938 and purchased by Ellis Dentler of Dentler Maid (Dentler Potato chips) as an investment because he loved to eat there, Passed away in 1948 which left my dad, George Dentler to start his career in one of the finest seafood restaurants in the city of Houston.It was located at the corner of Fannin and Braeswood across from the Oiler practice field. We had the first lobster tank in the city.It is nice to see a picture of Ninfa, she was such a fine lady and business woman. My brother Hank is also a St. Thomas Alum. Start researching back and you will be surprised of how much influence the restaurant industry in Houston not only had on the foods we enjoy today but how important they were to the social scene back in the day. Keep up the good work. Susan

timblack2
timblack2 topcommenter

*so close* to being your first good article but leaving out the Carrabas? C'mon!

And if you think there are only 25 McDonald's here, you are high. There are probably that many in lil ol' Corpus Christi but not here. I can think of 4 alone on Westheimer west of the Galleria going toward Hwy6. No way there are just 25.

Good try, though. Keep at it.

MissusCrabby
MissusCrabby

Not only did you not mention Vincent (Uncle Bubba) Mandola, but you did not mention the Carrabba's or Lampasas's whom are related and have fantastic resturants.

Erik Vidor
Erik Vidor

A little surprised the Goodes didn't make it as well.

Lanette Kowis
Lanette Kowis

Great article but the Carrabba's should have been mentioned along with the Mandolas. They are related as well and have a strong presence in the restaurant business in Houston.

Alex Botti
Alex Botti

How do you write that article and not mention the Goodes?

CR250
CR250

You did not mention Vincent Mandola and how he and Tony and their wives opened Nino's  in 1977???  Now we have Vincent's, Nino's, Grappino, Pronto...brother of Tony and Damian

Noteables to mention, Felix Tijerina - Felix Mexican Restaurant, Leo Reynosa and sons- Leo's

fangard
fangard

Big fan of all of the famiies and related to one of them. Your reference to McDonald's in Houston may be a typo though. There are over 250 McDonald's in the Houston area. great piece. Love the blog.

kellie_1221
kellie_1221

@SusanDS my name is kellie dentler. George was part of my family,, would love to talk more. you can email me at kellie_1221@yahoo.com i am looking for items from the potato chip factoy and/or pier 21. just pictures are fine... thank you.

james.brock
james.brock

@timblack2  

Thanks to all the readers who have weighed in with their comments and stories about the rich histories of the many families whose hard work and efforts helped make Houston the fine food city it is today. Their legacies are rich and make for some great reading, and are sure to inspire the food families of the future.

In addition, a call to McDonald's tells us that there are 264 locations of the fast-food chain in the Houston area.

KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

I polled a number of people in Houston's culinary world for their opinions, and the Goodes and Carrabbas never came up. I think both are worth a mention later on though. Thanks!

timblack2
timblack2 topcommenter

@KaitlinS @timblack2  Yes i saw it. Obviously a glitch/limit in their search results on their site,. Common sense would have told you there are obviously more and to perhaps look at a second source to confirm. 


Anything you put in only results in 25 locations.


Lookie here. Apparently only 25 in New York City, too.

http://www.mcdonalds.com/us/en/restaurant_locator/restaurant_locationsresults.html?country=us&method=search&language=en&primaryCity=new+york+city&postalCode=


Seriously though. Nice try.




KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

@timblack2 @KaitlinS I see your point, and I'll amend the article to reflect that. But just so you know, your comments hold the same weight without all the condesension. Just a thought.

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