Salsa salvation: Ninfa’s green sauce
When I was a small kid in Dallas, my parents and I often ate Mexican at Herrera’s, a charming hole in the wall where you had to walk through the kitchen to get to your coveted table, which was one of about 8—hence the long, long lines of hungry people streaming out the door. I always ordered the same thing: a child’s tamale plate with rice and beans. No experimentation for me, I ate this every visit. This was the perfect Mexican meal for me and I was satisfied.
When I was nine, we moved to Houston. The first time we went to a Mexican restaurant, I was in for a big shock: where were the tamales? Instead, Houston Mexican menus featured dishes I’d never heard of such as enchiladas verdes. Also, being close to the Gulf, fish tacos were popular, as were tacos al carbon and a sizzling skillet of fajitas. And besides the usual bowl of red salsa on the table there was also a bowl of green. I was upset I couldn’t order my usual meal, but after I had my first taste of green sauce—a creamy and tangy mix of avocados, cilantro, tomatillos, jalapenos and sour cream—I no longer missed tamales. Mexican food had taken on a whole new meaning. (Likewise, it was my first lesson in learning that Tex-Mex, like all great cuisines, has regional variations.)
Ninfa Laurenzo, the late proprietor of the Houston chain Ninfa’s is credited with inventing green sauce. But it’s the rare Mexican restaurant in Houston that doesn’t also offer the salsa—it’s ubiquitous all over town. The one Houston restaurant that famously didn’t serve it was Pappasito’s, so I always refused to dine there—why bother? Without green sauce a Houston Tex-Mex meal was incomplete. (Though I have been informed that Pappasito’s has recently added green sauce so perhaps I’ll go there next time I’m in town).
I love all things Tex-Mex, but my passion for green sauce falls in a category of its own. On a visit to a Houston restaurant I can go through several bowls before my meal arrives. And whenever I visit my mom, she always keeps a quart on hand so I can indulge myself whenever I like. (Yes, long after everyone’s gone to bed, you’ll find me bathed in the refrigerator’s light, guzzling green sauce.) I’ve even found a place in New York City that has it, El Rio Grande. The manager told me the original owner basically ripped Ninfa’s whole menu and while it’s not quite the same, it’ll do in a pinch.
But I wasn’t always so fortunate to have a local joint serving the stuff. In the early ‘90s, I lived in Iowa City, Iowa for a couple of years. While I could find decent steaks, just about everything else that reminded me of Texas was unavailable to me in the Midwest, including my beloved green sauce. I had tried recreating the salsa on my own, but with little success. My mom would send me clippings from the Houston Chronicle of favorite recipes (these were the dark, pre-Internet days), all appreciated, but not quite what I was missing. Every week I’d ask her, “Did they run a recipe for green sauce yet?” And every week she gave me the same answer: “No.” But finally, after caving to much demand, the Chronicle finally printed it, noting it was the paper’s most-requested recipe. She called me with the good news, saying, “At last, I have your recipe. Are you sure you want it? It calls for imitation sour cream! Yuck!” Well, that’s an easy substitution (I can’t even begin to imagine what imitation sour cream actually is)—salsa salvation, at last!
Finding all the ingredients was a tall order in Iowa (tomatillos weren’t a common Midwestern grocery staple at the time), but once I’d finally sourced everything needed, the rest was easy. It was one of the first times I realized that I could recreate a taste of home no matter where I happened to be.
So I present to you today the recipe that brought me much joy. For those of you who aren’t cilantro fans, you can make the salsa without, but I can’t guarantee it’ll taste as divine. While the creamy avocados and sour cream complement the tang of the tomatillos, it’s the cilantro that gives this salsa its distinct flavor. It’s not too spicy, though you can add more jalapenos if you crave more heat. And while I’m content to eat the salsa with tortilla chips or yes, even just a spoon, it also goes well with enchiladas, fish, carnitas and chicken. It doesn’t keep long (the avocados will make it turn brown in a day or so) but it’s so splendid I doubt you’ll have any left over.
I have no idea why this salsa is found only in Houston. But since I now have the recipe, it doesn’t matter to me—thanks to Mom, the Chronicle and Ninfa, I can make it any place I find myself in the world.
Ninfa’s green sauce
- 3 medium-sized green tomatoes, coarsely chopped
- 4 tomatillos, husked and chopped
- 1 to 2 jalapeños, stemmed and coarsely chopped
- 3 small garlic cloves
- 3 medium-sized ripe avocados, peeled, pitted and sliced
- 4 sprigs cilantro
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 1/2 cups sour cream
- Combine chopped tomatoes, tomatillos, jalapeños, and garlic in a saucepan. Bring to a boil (tomatoes provide the liquid), reduce heat and simmer 10 to 15 minutes.
- Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
- Place tomato mixture with the avocados, cilantro and salt in food processor or blender and blend until smooth.
- Pour into a bowl and stir in sour cream.
I have used this base for a very long time! Internet! What I find is.., Greek or plain yogurt makes it last longer.. canned tomatillos work and.., everyone I mean everyone, not from Houston, asks me to make this!l still! And it is 2023! It is better warm( consensus says!) w warm chips( buy store brand whatever you can afford) warm them salt them! Amazing job! Like garlicky .. put more garlic.. zestier? More tomatillos , creamier… make your own. Amazing results WILL happen!
Natalee–These tips are excellent. Thank you for sharing!