A Legacy to Savor
Lena Laurenzo carries on the spirit of her famous restaurateur-grandmother, Mama Ninfa
Published in 2021 Texas Rising Stars magazine on March 23, 2021
Fan of fajitas? Then dig into the history of Houston’s legendary Mama Ninfa Laurenzo. The storied restaurateur’s legacy extends far beyond the kitchen, and her granddaughter, Lena B. Laurenzo, strives to keep it alive. “I am standing on the shoulders of many decades of hard work, blood, sweat, tears and, frankly, love,” she says.
In 1949, Mama Ninfa and husband Domenic Laurenzo opened the Rio Grande Tortilla Factory in the East End. For years, the no-frills business operated as a factory, rolling out tortillas and, Laurenzo remembers with a laugh, pizza dough—a nod to her grandfather’s Italian roots. Mama Ninfa’s family hailed from Mexico: “That’s how it started—this tiny little family business in the Hispanic part of Houston, where my grandparents were just trying to provide for their five children.”
There were struggles. Laurenzo’s grandfather died in 1969, and four years later, the factory burned down, just as Mama Ninfa was on to something—tacos al carbon, grilled skirt steak served with her famous tortillas. They eventually became fajitas, and Mama Ninfa cooked up history.
“People would line up around the block for tacos al carbon, and to this day, people like to tell me that my grandmother greeted every person who came with open arms,” Laurenzo says. Then came the fire. “She and her children built it back, brick by brick. After that, the growth never stopped.”
Another Ninfa’s opened, but in 1998, the Laurenzo family sold both restaurants. Now, some of Mama Ninfa’s descendants own a number of El Tiempos. For Laurenzo, who broke many a piñata in the back of Ninfa’s with her cousins, the sale was tough.
“It’s the American dream, this story of a first-generation American learning how to be an entrepreneur,” Laurenzo says. “I do what I can to keep her legacy alive.”
That includes involvement with the Ninfa R. Laurenzo Early Childhood Center and the Ninfa Laurenzo Scholarship Fund. She still pops in to the original Ninfa’s. “Seeing her name going in, and the memories I had in that place … I can’t sit at a table there without tears in my eyes.”
Mama Ninfa’s Green Sauce
“I probably have consumed 10,000 gallons of the stuff over my whole life,” says Laurenzo.
3 medium green tomatoes, quartered
4 tomatillos, quartered
1-2 jalapeños, stemmed and coarsely chopped
3 small garlic cloves
3 medium avocados
4 sprigs cilantro
1 teaspoon salt
1½ cups sour cream
Tortilla chips, for serving
Combine tomatoes, tomatillos, jalapeños and garlic in saucepan. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. (Add ¼ cup of water if you need liquid.) Peel avocados and remove pits. Set aside. Place tomato mixture, avocados, cilantro and salt in food processor. (You may have to do this in batches.) Process until smooth. Stir in sour cream. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve in small bowls with chips. Makes 4-5 cups of sauce.