When news broke that three of the city's most popular Ninfa's locations had been sold to Maggie Rita's -- a Tex-Mex chain owned, in part, by comedian Carlos Mencia -- there was an uproar. Sure, Ninfa's hadn't been that great in a long time, but to many longtime Houstonians (me included), the deal with interloper Maggie Rita's may as well have been a pact with the devil.
Ninfa's is a vital part of Houston's culinary history, and Mama Ninfa Laurenzo is credited with introducing the fajita to not just Houston but the entire nation. At one point, the Tex-Mex chain had grown so large and so representative of Tex-Mex as a cuisine that there was a Ninfa's in Germany. In Germany.
The story of how Ninfa's was lost to outside operators and independent franchisees is long and tangled, but today only one Ninfa's location is still reflective of the restaurant chain when it was in its prime: The Original Ninfa's on Navigation. The rest of the Ninfa's that are still scattered across the country have varying levels of food and service, although most have fallen away significantly from the high-quality cuisine offered at the Original and last of the true Ninfa's empire.
The takeover of three Ninfa's locations in Houston by Maggie Rita's represents the latest and possibly saddest chapter in the Tex-Mex chain's history, and certainly the nadir of Ninfa's existence. That's because Maggie Rita's itself may well represent a nadir unto itself in the world of Houston Tex-Mex.
In this week's cafe review, I visited the Maggie Rita's on Shepherd hoping to find the sort of good, solid Tex-Mex food that Houston is known for. Instead, I found a jumbled, pan-Latin menu that featured "Ecuadorean ceviche" (which was campechana, in reality) and plastic-tasting arepas next to misguided "deconstructed salmon tamales" and grossly oversize chimichangas. To add insult to injury, the food cost twice as much as it should.
Even the drinks were despicable: Over the course of my visits, I tried three different margaritas -- something Maggie Rita's, as its name would indicate, touts as a specialty item -- and found them all to taste more of store-bought margarita mix than either tequila or lime juice. Forget the rest of the specialty cocktail list, too; it's just as bad.
I couldn't even find solace in the chips and salsa, but did eventually seek cold comfort in the one item I tried that didn't fully and completely suck: beef fajita tacos, which were served on respectable flour tortillas but which also set me back $17 for two.
And let me be clear: While I was supremely annoyed that Maggie Rita's had quietly taken over the Ninfa's locations on Kirby, Post Oak and the Gulf Freeway, my intent wasn't to do a hit-job of a review on the place. Even though I grimaced after reading co-owner Santiago Moreno's shameful interview with Eater Houston in which he indicated that women weren't interested in food, I was simply embarrassed for him -- not offended.
Instead, I went into my first Maggie Rita's dinner determined to sort out the place for myself, wondering if I'd perhaps find that the place wasn't nearly the demon that everyone else made it out to be.
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But with Maggie Rita's, it turns out that the devil you know is definitely better than the devil you don't.