Maggie Rita's Takes Over Ninfa's
"But I don't want to go to Maggie Rita's," my friend Kyle complained from the backseat of my truck one Friday night as we rattled across the railroad tracks and down Shepherd on our way to the Tex-Mex restaurant. "Why would anyone want to go to a Carlos Mencia restaurant? The recipes are just going to be stolen and not as good as the originals."
Honduras-born Mencia, best known as a stand-up comic, has been accused of stealing material from his fellow comics ranging from people such as Joe Rogan and George Lopez right up the totem pole to Bill Cosby himself. But that was several years ago, and the comedian has since admitted that he's in therapy as a result of the accusations and the ensuing scandals. He's also fashioned himself into a whole new person, dropping 70 pounds and opening a chain of restaurants called Maggie Rita's.
"You're not even giving it a chance," I snapped back to Kyle. "This place is taking over a bunch of Ninfa's restaurants — I have to check it out." Besides, I wondered aloud to my friends as we pulled up: "How badly can you really mess up Tex-Mex?"
Having eaten at the Maggie Rita's on Shepherd, I can say with great confidence that Mencia's restaurant chain absolutely did not steal any recipes in the creation of its menu. Mostly because I can't imagine that someone would have any recipes for food this bad. Stealing would be pointless; you couldn't give these recipes away.
You can barely give the food away, either, although Maggie Rita's charges enough for it (and this is on top of being forced to unreasonably turn your car over to a valet in Maggie Rita's rather large parking lot). A tiny ramekin of unpalatably rubbery "queso flameado" topped with greasy chorizo costs $8. A beef chimichanga fried in dirty-tasting oil and topped with a chile gravy that tastes of years-old ground cumin that had been collecting dust in someone's pantry costs $14. A "deconstructed salmon tamale" featuring a pale, lifeless, undersized piece of salmon on top of a flat, store-bought corn husk that looks straight from the Thanksgiving decoration aisle at Hobby Lobby costs $22.
And besides being flatly overpriced, the food is laughable. Red salsa is so garlicky as to be inedible, while the green has the fatty smack of cafeteria-style pump-top jugs of ranch dressing. Ecuadorean ceviche is neither ceviche nor Ecuadorean. It is, however, a half cup of cooked shrimp nubs in a sickly sweet cocktail sauce that's more akin to campechana than anything else (and is not worth $9 either way). Queso flameado is served barely warm in that odd little ramekin rather than in a shallow dish that allows you to mix the meat and cheese together.
Clammy, tough little arepas from a weirdly pan-Latin "tapas" portion of the menu that claimed to be stuffed with goat cheese contained no actual goat cheese. They did, however, taste like the Saran wrap I imagined them to have been sheathed in prior to being halfheartedly heated in a microwave. Jalapeños rellenos that were described on the menu as being stuffed with crab and served with a raspberry-chipotle sauce instead came stuffed with greasy cheese that carried a heady, unpleasant, wharf-like whiff of fish — but no crab to be found. The raspberry-chipotle sauce underneath tasted like pre-made raspberry coulis — the type used to hamfistedly decorate dessert plates with baroque swirls — into which someone had thrown powdered chipotle that tasted as old as the cumin.
To my right, Kyle chortled with laughter throughout the evening. He'd ordered the only "good" meal of the night, although it cost nearly $20: a plate of fajita tacos on very respectable flour tortillas. "I played it safe," he grinned as he watched me pick despondently at the "salmon tamale" in front of me, the entire sad affair drenched with barely pink tomatoes and diced cucumber in a pasty "Dijon-based cream sauce" that tasted of cornstarch, water and salt.
To say that Maggie Rita's is a disgrace to Tex-Mex would be an understatement. But this is the restaurant that has taken over several of Houston's most popular Ninfa's locations — including the three on Kirby, Post Oak and the Gulf Freeway (although, it should be noted, not the original Ninfa's on Navigation, which is still independently owned and operated). And that's perhaps the most depressing thing about Maggie Rita's: It represents a new nadir for a once-respected and beloved Houston Tex-Mex institution.
When news first broke that Maggie Rita's was taking over several Ninfa's locations, co-owner Santiago Moreno spoke to Eater Houston editor Eric Sandler about the changes Houstonians could expect. In his now-infamous interview, Moreno admitted that Maggie Rita's is aimed at people who equate Taco Bell with Mexican food and — more tellingly — that the menu decisions are driven by an extremely bizarre brand of supposedly female-oriented marketing.
"We've found out consumer decisions are made by women," Moreno told Sandler. "When we track what makes a woman decide where to eat Mexican food, it has to do with margaritas. It has nothing to do with food."
Armed with those two pieces of information, it's suddenly easy to see why the dishes at Maggie Rita's are so deplorable. How can you pretend to care about food when your target demographic is a 'rita-guzzling Crunchwrap Supreme fan? Why should you put care and effort into your food when catering to the lowest common denominator? Maggie Rita's seems determined to set itself up for failure this way, underestimating a market like Houston which is saturated with excellent Tex-Mex restaurants and a consumer base possessed of a smart, experienced palate that will only suffer through a bowl of garlic-and-tomato salsa once, never to return again.
If I hadn't had to return for another visit, I would never have set foot inside a Maggie Rita's again. Even the cavernous dining room is so charmless and bland that it reflects the lack of care put into the food from the moment you walk in. The walls are painted in dreary shades of rotten eggplant, while the bizarre drop ceiling and crooked, mismatched, Kirkland's-bargain-bin paintings give it an air of institutionalism. It's dark, even during the day, and rather featureless aside from some windows that overlook a usually empty patio. I've been in jail cells more welcoming — and with much more character.
Going off of Moreno's claims of margaritas being the key to Maggie Rita's success, however, I determinedly tried three versions of the house cocktail before deciding that I'd rather drink store-bought margarita mix, pour some Jose Cuervo into my mouth and swish it all around before enduring another Maggie Rita. The frozen version was perhaps the most palatable, but not by much. The on-the-rocks version and the flaca (or skinny) version both tasted plastic and bitter.
I even gave the martini a shot — after all, the restaurant has a substantial, much-touted cocktail menu — but after the waitress mispronounced the name of the drink (Maggie Rita's calls it a Cotton Gin, which our waitress pronounced with a hard G), my hopes for it fell. And, indeed, I was disappointed: Instead of the promised Hendrick's gin in my cocktail, the martini had the sour lemon smack of cheap Seagram's. An effort to obtain bitters and soda from the bar was met with puzzlement from the bartender, who'd never even heard of bitters. I fear the cocktail program here may be getting off to a rough start.
During my last visit to Maggie Rita's over lunch, I felt a pang of sorrow for our server. He was the only waiter or bartender in the entire restaurant and was doing an admirable job of keeping up. Far more admirable than our previous waitress, who brought out the wrong food and disappeared for long stretches of time to chitchat with her fellow waitstaff — so long, in fact, that our dinner stretched to an intolerable three hours.
No, this waiter was far better, and it pained me to order food from him and then cast it despairingly aside. My cheese enchiladas were covered in an almost entirely flavorless "chile gravy" (which at least tasted better than the ancient cumin-filled chile con carne that tops the chimichanga), while my taco contained beef that hadn't even been given the courtesy of being salted while cooking.
Thinking myself too much of a Tex-Mex purist and maybe unreasonably hard on Maggie Rita's after that first dinner, I'd brought along a new-to-Houston co-worker from Madison, Wisconsin, whose own knowledge of Tex-Mex food ranks a self-admitted "3.21" on a scale of 1 to 10. He cut off a few bites of his burrito before pushing it away and returning instead to his flat Diet Coke.
"Okay, I know nothing about Tex-Mex," he said. "But this is awful. It tastes like nothing. I mean, shouldn't it have some flavor?"
I took a few bites of the bland burrito for myself. The Tex-Mex neophyte was right. It was the wax-fruit version of a burrito, all substance and style but no flavor. And here's where I would be tempted to draw an analogy between that burrito and Maggie Rita's as a whole. But that would be too generous; Maggie Rita's has as little substance or style as it does taste. And now, neither does Ninfa's.
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