Tex-Mex in the tunnels

Legendary Tex-Mex restaurant sizzles with new downtown Houston food hall spinoff

Legendary Tex-Mex spot sizzles with new downtown food hall spinoff

Mama Ninfa's Tacos y Tortas beef torta
Carne asada torta with sliced ham and manchego. Photo by Kirsten Gilliam
Alex Padilla Legacy Restaurants Ninfa's Antone's
Chef Alex Padilla. Photo by Becca Wright
Mama Ninfa's Tacos y Tortas Pastor Tacos
Pork pastor tacos. Photo by Kirsten Gilliam
Mama Ninfa's Tacos y Tortas beef torta
Alex Padilla Legacy Restaurants Ninfa's Antone's
Mama Ninfa's Tacos y Tortas Pastor Tacos

Of the six restaurants opening downtown’s Understory food hall, five are new locations of existing establishments. The one that isn’t — Mama Ninfa’s Tacos y Tortas — is arguably the most exciting.   

A fast-casual spinoff of iconic Houston restaurant The Original Ninfa’s on Navigation, Tacos y Tortas will open at Understory on Monday, August 12, the restaurant announced. Its menu features a greatest-hits selection of the restaurant’s popular tacos, along with all-new tortas and breakfast items developed by Legacy Restaurants corporate executive chef Alex Padilla.

Taco options include grilled redfish, bacon-wrapped shrimp, carnitas, and fajitas. Tortas come stuffed with adobo chicken, carne asada, carnitas, barbacoa, and a classic Cuban made with pulled pork, ham, and Swiss cheese. Prices range from $4.50-$6.50 for each taco and $9-$12 for the tortas.

“The menu for this concept has always been intended to be suitable for fast-casual in that it’s a subset of the Original Nifna’s menu but obviously introducing a lot more by way or tortas and the breakfast component, which we haven’t done at the Original Ninfa’s,” Legacy CEO Jonathan Horowitz tells CultureMap. “We intend to do it at the Uptown location.”

Those breakfast options include all the usual egg and protein combinations (brisket, bacon, chorizo, etc.) in both taco and torta form, as well as chilaquiles and a yogurt parfait.

Fajitas, the dish Ninfa’s founder Ninfa Laurenzo pioneered that’s become a global staple, are conspicuously absent from the Tacos y Tortas menu. Horowitz says there are several reasons why they won’t be available at Understory.

“One is the ability to produce it in the space that we have. The other reason is timing. The speed at which we need to produce food there,” he says. “There’s such a crush of people between 11:30 and 1 pm, you have to be able to put out the food in minutes. We didn’t feel like we could do justice to real fajitas in that timeframe.”

However, fajitas will be on the menu at the brick and mortar locations of Tacos y Tortas that Legacy plans to open. Horowitz acknowledges that the company has identified one possible location for a 80-100 seat restaurant that could open in spring or summer 2020, but it hasn’t signed a lease yet. It isn’t necessarily in any rush to do so. As he notes, the company will open three new locations this year.

“We just opened Post Oak. We're under construction at Antone’s Medical Center,” Horowitz says. “We’re not feeling a tremendous amount of pressure to get something signed. We kind of need to take a breath.”

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Mama Ninfa’s Tacos y Tortas; 800 Capitol St.; Monday - Thursday, 7 am to 10 pm; Friday, 7 am to midnight; Saturday, 9 am to midnight; Sunday, 9 am to 9 pm.