Acclaimed Chef is Leaving Legendary Houston Tex-Mex Restaurant

Chef Alex Padilla

After 20 years of service, executive chef Alex Padilla is leaving The Original Ninfa’s, which is owned by Niel Morgan’s Houston-based restaurant group, Legacy Restaurants. According to a press release, he is leaving “to pursue other professional and personal goals.” He will remain in a consulting role until July 1. 

“As I’m getting older, I’m looking to slow down and refocus on the things that made me want to be a chef in the first place — like travel and cultural inspiration,” said Padilla. 

Alex Padilla of The Original Ninfa's
Executive chef Alex Padilla of The Original Ninfa’s On Navigation. Courtesy photo.

During his tenure, Padilla has had the important responsibility as the steward of an iconic restaurant. That included maintaining the culinary legacy and standards of the restaurant’s original founder, Mama Ninfa Laurenzo — a tricky role under the circumstances. Due to the Laurenzo family losing control of the Ninfa’s restaurant business and name, Mama Ninfa’s heirs went on to establish Tex-Mex restaurant chain El Tiempo Cantina and Italian restaurant Laurenzo’s

Regardless of the situational awkwardness, Padilla proved a good fit for the role. He’d first met the beloved matriarch as a child. Even now, The Original Ninfa’s is still regarded as a best-in-class Tex-Mex restaurant for its fajitas, tacos al carbon, queso, tamales and much more. 

beef and chicken fajitas at The Original Ninfa's
Beef and chicken fajitas with all the trimmings at The Original Ninfas. Photo by Becca Wright.

When Padilla joined The Original Ninfa’s, there was only one location: the first established by Mama Ninfa at 2704 Navigation. In mid-2019, Legacy Restaurants opened a second one at 1700 Post Oak in BLVD Place. Until the company recently added chefs Patti Delgado, formerly executive chef Mark Holley’s sous chef at Davis Street at Hermann Park, and David Luna, previously of Goode Co. Restaurants, Padilla was not only executive chef for both locations, but the only one with professional training. According to Morgan, while Padilla helmed the kitchens, sales increased by 300%. 

“Most of the company’s growth since inception has been with Alex in the kitchen — more than 75% of it,” Morgan said. “Alex has been with us since the beginning of our effort to build something great on the base of this amazing little place on Navigation Boulevard that Mama Ninfa left behind. He’s done an outstanding job, and I will always be grateful.”

With Padilla’s long tenure has come significant national acclaim. In 2018, he won The Chew’s “Best Chef on the Block” competition. In both 2019 and 2020, The Original Ninfa’s was a James Beard Foundation Award semifinalist for Outstanding Restaurant. 

Closer to our hearts: he was an invited, featured chef at Houston Food Finder’s inaugural The Perfect 10 Gala in 2019, where he served, “a rich yet nuanced Cochinita Pibil served with a plantain cake and creamy red poblano sauce.” 

“I have a couple of opportunities I’m working on that I’ll share when I’m ready,” Padilla said. “Ninfa’s will always be part of me and it will always be family and home to me. I know that The Original Ninfa’s is in good hands with this team. They gave me the confidence to make this move now.” 

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