Houston’s Old West Flavors Include Ninfa’s Sizzling Fajitas

Sunday, November 02 2008 13:20 Paul Lasley   OnTravel in the West / Paul Lasley
True, it might be the symbol for energy and excess, but Houston retains a flavor of the old West that can be a surprise for visitors. For among the glass-encased high-rises standing in testimony to the oil patch's wealth, there are vestiges of the real West.

Take Ninfa's; it's a local Mexican restaurant that is widely credited for popularizing fajitas, a Tex-Mex dish of meat and veg, typically served on a sizzling platter.

According to Ninfa's Executive Chef, Alex Padilla, the dish probably originated with vaqueros out on the vast prairies who looked for a way to eat cheap cuts of beef like skirt steak.

No matter the dish's origin, Ninfa's became the place to go in Houston for fajitas. Today there are Ninfa's in several locations around the city, but for us, the only one to visit is the original one on Navigation.

The simple wood-frame building testifies to the restaurant's humble origins. You know there's a promise of great food when the first thing you encounter inside is a woman making fresh tortillas.

Fajitas here are a world above what passes for the dish elsewhere. Charred, smoky, tender strips of beef are combined with sautéed onions spiced with chilis and often flavored with citrus. The meat explodes with flavor and brings to mind images of those Mexican cowboys out on the plains cooking beef on iron grills over open fires.

Padilla has taken what all to often passes for Tex-Mex and made the dishes into sophisticated offerings that are the main reason visitors and regulars alike pack Ninfa's to dine inside amid colorful paintings or outside on a wooden deck. Padilla has a reverence for the tradition of Mexican dishes that those vaqueros would recognize, but he brings a new vision to them that celebrates both the old and the new West.

But perhaps the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo best illustrates how the old and new West coalesce in Houston.

The show, which is held in March, is Texas-sized by any estimate. Nearly 2 million people attended the 2008 show. With some 30,000 livestock and horse show entries the livestock part of the show is the largest in the world. FFA and 4-H entries are very popular and the show holds records for junior market auctions. In 2002 the Grand Champion steer brought $600,000.01 at auction.

The show is really a charity event that raises money for education. Since its beginning in 1932, the livestock show and rodeo has raised more than $200 million in educational support for the youth of Texas. Houston manages to combine the old West and new West with remarkable success. But sadly, we couldn't find a hitching post anywhere in downtown.


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