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Ninfa's put fajitas on the map

East end restaurant the place to go in Houston

THE Original Ninfa's on Navigation, which started out as a 10-table eatery in the corner of a tortilla factory, is credited with popularizing fajitas as a dish outside of Mexico.

Now one of Houston's top restaurants, the business built its reputation for sublime Mexican cuisine from humble origins.

Ninfa Laurenzo started the restaurant in 1973 to stay in business after her ItalianAmerican husband Tommy Laurenzo passed away. The couple operated the Rio Grande Tortilla Factory, which had been making tortilla and pizza dough since 1948.

She borrowed money to open the restaurant as a last resort and the business grew rapidly into a multi-million dollar regional empire. By the mid-'90s Ninfa's had fallen on hard times and the family was forced to file for bankruptcy. By then Ninfa Laurenzo was a cultural icon (she seconded George Bush senior's Republican nomination for president) and when she died on June 17, 2001 thousands of Houston's business and political elite attended her funeral.

"The original Ninfa's was on the east side of downtown sort of what was then the beginning of the barrio," says current owner Niel Morgan. "Fajita means 'skirt steak' and she was the first one to do it. It really caught on and it became the place to go in Houston. She became very well known locally and very popular in the Latino community."

Morgan's Legacy Restaurants operate the original restaurant. After bankruptcy proceedings the rest of the chain was broken up and went into different hands.

"We have several of the same staff who have been here for almost 40 years - waiters, cooks and so forth. It's always been popular, always been successful and today is enjoying the most popularity and highest sales ever. It's part of Houston."

Executive chef Alex Padilla's mother

worked at Ninfa's as a cook when he was young and Legacy Restaurants enticed him to return home to man the kitchen.

"Alex is an outstanding chef," says Morgan. "I was reading a trade publication one day and it was talking about a new restaurant in San Francisco called Colibrí (which means hummingbird) and how it was very good and how the Mexican consulate ate there every day and so forth. It had an interview with the chef who happened to mention that he had gone to high school in Houston and his mother had worked at Ninfa's. Normally I would never have called a San Francisco chef to talk about coming to work for us but that backstory was good enough that I did. Long story short he ended up in Houston in 2006 and came to work for us. He has really made it a great restaurant again."

When the restaurant came out of bankruptcy there was a lot of work to do to bring it back to its former glory. "The main thing is to keep it together," says Morgan. "It would be a big mistake to tear it down and build a new building because it has a lot of charm. It was built a little bit here, a little bit there, and so what we are mainly trying to do is take care of it. We've added some outdoor seating and added a parking lot, all the while trying to keep the same feeling."

Ninfa's have just launched their salsa recipe in bottled form and are selling them at H-E-B supermarkets and Central Markets in Texas.

They are initially marketing four different versions of their house sauce: mild and hot house red roasted salsas, green hatch chile salsa and chipotle salsa.

But the more things change the more things stay the same. "We still have all the old favourites," says Morgan. "We still have more fajitas than anything else."