Phaedra Cook is eating her way through Houston and counting down her 100 favorite dishes of 2015. It's a collection of personal favorites that is also indicative of Houston dining. It's a scene where a vast range of dishes coexist: highbrow and lowbrow; local and international; cheap and expensive; modern cuisine and beloved tenets — and everything in between.
In 2010, the Houston Press restaurant critic at the time, Robb Walsh, cited the fajitas at the Original Ninfa’s On Navigation as #2 on his 100 Favorite Dishes list.
When it comes to fajitas, though, Walsh himself is no slouch. By the time he made his 100 List, he had already published The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History In Recipes and Photos. In 2012, his follow-up The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook, hit the shelves.
In 2011, he opened El Real Tex-Mex along with business partners Bill Floyd and Bryan Caswell. Would the fajitas at a restaurant owned in part by a scholar of Tex-Mex have a fair chance against his own venerable favorite?
We compared apples-to-apples: a half-pound of beef fajitas ordered midday at each place. The strips of outside skirt steak at both restaurants were tender and full of flavor. However, Ninfa’s made a critical error.
The allure of fajitas has much to do with temperature and presentation. They must—absolutely must—be served on a sizzling comal. The sound and smell of the meat as it hits the table is part of what makes it such a seductive experience. Ninfa’s comal was hot. It was not sizzling and that meant no music for the ears, no smell of fat hitting the pan and no sight of gentle arcs of steam drifting up and away. (Compare the photo below with Walsh's photo from 2010. Our batch didn't even have the beautiful mahogany color and they're dry.)
El Real’s fajitas were not only sizzling, they were weaponized. As they hit the table, I was utterly taken in by the wafting scent. I soon realized that I wasn’t being seduced by beef and sautéed onions alone. Filling the air was one of the most compelling, wonderful scents in the world: garlic.
Garlic is often used in fajita marinade, but a second, post-cooking dose isn’t always present. The butter helps prevent the meat from becoming dry. It almost seems like cheating. On the other hand, it's a standard accoutrement at steakhouses, so why not use it on fajitas, too?
On a secondary note, just as I was preparing to visit the Original Ninfa’s On Navigation, I noticed a Twitter conversation between the Houston Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook and some mutual friends about the flour tortillas there having gone downhill. I asked Cook if the fajitas were still good, and she said they were—and that is true. El Real’s may have been better, but Ninfa’s are still quite respectable. I wouldn’t turn away a plate of them.
She’s dead-on regarding those miserable tortillas, though. They were thick, chewy and tough. El Real’s were served piping hot and separated into tender layers when torn apart.
So did the fajitas at upstart El Real beat Ninfa’s original classic? I think so. Presentation, temperature and accompaniments—including the tortillas—matter.
Whatever is going on at The Original Ninfa's On Navigation right now, I hope they find their footing again. I know they can do better.
The List of Top 100 Dishes of 2015 So Far:
No. 78, Chicken Tikka Masala from the Tandoori Nite truck
No. 79, Chocolates at Cacao & Cardamom
No, 80, Hummus Supreme at Al's Quick Stop
No. 81, Red Oil Dumplings at Mala Sichuan
No. 82, Tex-Cajun Fries at BB's Café
No. 83, Mac & Cheese at The Oceanaire Seafood Room
No. 84, The Principal Burger at Bernie's Burger Bus
No. 85, Hunter's Honey-Roasted Duck at Brennan's Of Houston
No. 86, Fish & Chips at Good Dog Houston
No. 87, Sausage, Egg & Cheese Biscuit at Blacksmith
No. 88, "Saucy Balls" At Brooklyn Meatball Company
No. 89, Perry's Steakhouse/Perry & Sons Pork Chop
No. 90, General Tso's Chicken from The Rice Box
No. 91, Eggs, Refried Beans, Hash Browns and Hugo's Sauce at 59 Diner
No. 92, Shipley Do-Nuts Plain Glazed
No. 93, Housemade Bologney at Public Services Wine & Whisky
No. 94, Bo Luc Lac at Cheno's (formerly Chino's) Fast Food
No. 95, Combo #5 at Soto's Cantina
No. 96, Carnitas Salad At Chipotle
No. 97, Pickled Shrimp At Punk's Simple Southern Food
No. 98, Lobster Roll At Maine-Ly Sandwiches
No. 99, Chili-Cheese Coneys At JCI Grill
No. 100, Corned Beef Hash And Eggs At House Of Pies