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HISTORICAL – Ninfa, a Houston Legend


Ninfa Laurenzo in the pose so familiar to restaurant patrons: “Mama Ninfa” smiling in welcome.

Ninfa Laurenzo in the pose so familiar to restaurant patrons: “Mama Ninfa” smiling in welcome.

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Ninfa displaying her Texas Women’s Hall of Fame trophy of recognition in 1988.

(Photographs from the Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo Papers, courtesy of the Houston History Archives, Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries.)

Ninfa is legend in Houston, as a woman and a brand. Ninfa’s is the story of a woman, Ninfa Laurenzo, who was suddenly widowed with five children to support. First, she opened a taqueria in the tortilla factory she and her husband had owned. In 1973, she expanded to a 10-table restaurant, serving her mother’s recipes and adding her own. Ninfa’s restaurant flourished as she rebranded Mexican food in Houston with savory flavors and Texas-style family friendliness. Within 10 years, her single restaurant expanded into a multi-million dollar family business. In 1985, Ninfa’s employed 800-1,000 people and served 2 million customers per year. Expansion continued, diversified and contracted, but the original restaurant on Navigation remains a testament to woman power and family entrepreneurship.

As Ninfa developed her menus, she looked to the cuisines of Mexico, offering flavorful innovations such as fresh cilantro,
avocado-tomatillo sauce and her signature dish: Tacos al Carbon, charbroiled beef served in soft flour tortillas. Ninfa’s restaurants featured two menus: one with traditional Tex-Mex staples and another with more expensive dishes stemming from Mexico’s vibrant gastronomic traditions.

Ninfa repaid her success in Houston with nonprofit service. She served on multiple boards including Houston METRO and Houston Hispanic Forum and received myriad awards recognizing her
business acumen. Ninfa also served as a goodwill ambassador selected by Vice-President George Bush in 1984 to welcome Pope John Paul II to Puerto Rico. In 1996, Ninfa joined Walter Cronkite and Barbara Jordan as one of eight Legends of Texas. Texas Women’s Hall of Fame welcomed Ninfa in 1988, and Theater under the Stars made her life into a musical.

In 1988, Ninfa seconded George H. W. Bush’s nomination for president at the Republican Convention in New Orleans. In 1992, she
co-chaired the hospitality committee for the Republican Convention in Houston, opening the convention with a speech in English and Spanish, and leading delegates in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Ninfa served multiple communities with her restaurants and nonprofit service, remaining always mindful of her roots and her good fortune. A catering brochure announced: “On behalf of all my people and myself, Gracías.” Ninfa Laurenzo died in 2001,
but her restaurants and her children’s restaurants continue as landmarks in Houston’s cultural history.

 

Author Dr. Teresa (Terry) Tomkins-Walsh is historian and archivist for the Houston History Archives with the Center for Public History at the University of Houston. Located in Special Collections at the UH Libraries, the Archives collects historical documents on the growth and development of Houston with particular concentrations in energy, environmental and ethnic history. Contact her at tomkinswalsh@uh.edu.
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