Restaurants Earn Bragging Rights In Houston Taco Competition Honoring Mama Ninfa

Sixteen Houston restaurants competed yesterday in the inaugural Tacos Over Texas competition. Hosted at The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, the restaurant founded in 1973 by “Mama” Ninfa Laurenzo, it paid homage to one of the city’s most famous matriarchs and pioneering female restaurateurs. She died in 2001 but her impact on Houston’s restaurant scene remains.

These days, Legacy Restaurants owns and operates The Original Ninfa’s and chef Alex Padilla runs the kitchen. The children Laurenzo had with her Italian husband, Domenic—and, later, her grandchildren—went on to have their own successes with Tex-Mex chain El Tiempo and Italian restaurant Laurenzo’s. It’s significant that the Tacos Over Texas competition brought the Laurenzo family back to the restaurant founded by Mama Ninfa. In fact, family members helped spearhead the competition.

It wasn’t just about taco bragging rights, though: the competition raised money for the Ninfa Laurenzo Scholarship Fund, which uses donations to send deserving students from underrepresented backgrounds to high school and college.

Tacos Over Texas entries
Selections of all the taco entries for the inaugural Tacos Over Texas competition. Photo by Zaide Scheib.

“We were overwhelmed by the participation today,” said Beth Speck, one of the original waitresses at The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation and now part of the summer program at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. “Mama Ninfa touched so many people in this city, and she made her part of this community better. This event was about helping young people have a chance to get an education that can open doors to help them do the same.”

“My mother passed away 17 years ago,”said Phyllis Laurenzo Mandola, Ninfa’s oldest child and only daughter. “And my husband and I keep saying her legacy resonates — with chefs in this city, with her family and with former employees. That legacy was all about giving. We created the foundation to be able to give back, but I kept feeling this little tap on the shoulder, telling me I wasn’t doing enough. I know it was my mother pushing me to do more. With this [fundraiser], I’ve been saying, ‘We don’t have the money to cure cancer, but maybe we can educate the person who will.'”

Photo of chef Donny Navarette holding a bottle of sauce.
Chef Donny Navarette gets ready to put the finishing touch on his tacos. Photo by Holly Beretto.

Mama Ninfa inspired chefs outside of her own family and some of them took part in the fundraiser competition.  “I remember meeting Ninfa when I was 18 or 19 and had first come to this country,” said chef Kiran Verma of Indian fine dining restaurant Kiran’s. “The cumin she used in her cooking, the flavors, even though it was Mexican food, reminded me of the food from India.”

Led by chef Donny Navarette, Laurenzo’s took home the top prize, causing executive chef and Mama Ninfa’s grandson, Dominic Laurenzo, to quip, “I told him to do a sausage and pepper taco. I’m so glad he didn’t listen to me!” Navarete won for his carnitas-style taco, made with prime rib topped with guacamole cream and his own nod to Ninfa’s “atomic salsa” flavored with a bit of Dr Pepper.

Here’s the list of winners:

  • First Place: Chef Donny Navarette, Laurenzo’s—Carnitas-style Prime Rib Taco with guacamole cream
  • Second Place: Chef Kiran Verma, Kiran’s—Lamb Keema and Gobi (cauliflower) taco with cumin, ginger and English peas in chickpea shells
  • Third Place: Chef Alex Padilla, The Original Ninfa’s On Navigation—Lamb Taco with hummus and pomegranate seeds
  • People’s Choice: Chef David Cordúa, ChurrascosCarnitas Taco topped with queso fresco and plantain
  • Most Creative: Chef Robert Del Grande, Cafe Annie—Breakfast Taco with pumpkin seeds, eggs, queso fresco, poblano chile sauce and white onions

Plans are already in the works for next year’s event. “We’re all here because we love the Laurenzo family,” said Cordúa as he accepted his award. “Let’s do it again.” Del Grande had similar sentiments. “This event is all about being together. Never forget that, in Texas, friendship is first.”

“I’m so proud of the legacy Mama Ninfa left us and the real winners today are the kids,” said Padilla.

On a somber note: a motorcycle driver who was not attending the event struck two guests at the corner of Navigation and Delano as they were leaving the competition. The driver apparently hit a van before careening onto the sidewalk. One of the injured is a friend of Phyllis Mandola’s. EMS and Houston Police were called to the scene. One victim suffered a broken knee; the other a concussion. Hopefully, both will make a full recovery.

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  • April 9, 2018 at 7:38 pmBob Ryan

    I cannot believe that Mama has been gone for 17 years. The magnificent funeral mass at annunciation church was a sincere tribute to her.

  • April 9, 2018 at 9:26 amBeth Speck

    Thanks for being with us yesterday for a wonderful party in honor of Mam Ninfa! Both our friends are recovering at home. It was great meeting you! Beth

    • April 9, 2018 at 11:13 amHolly A Beretto

      Beth, I enjoyed meeting you, too. And I am so relieved to hear about your friends. Thank you for a wonderful event — looking forward to more to come!