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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).

Ninfas green sauce | Homesick Texan

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!

Ninfas green sauce | Homesick Texan

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.

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5 from 6 votes

Ninfa’s green sauce

Servings 4 cups
Author Adapted by Lisa Fain from a Houston Chronicle recipe

Ingredients

  • 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

Instructions

  • 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.

Notes

If you can’t find green tomatoes, substitute 6 more tomatillos

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Recipe Rating




151 Comments

  1. Keith J Freitag says:

    Lisa, I’ve made this a few times and it’s always excellent but I see the chronicle ones refers to imitation sour cream and you have typed out sour cream. Does one or the other make that much of a difference? I’ve used sour cream every time and only just now, did I see the imitation mentioned. Look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    1. Lisa Fain says:

      Keith–I’ve never even seen imitation sour cream before so I’ve always used regular.

  2. 5 stars
    Tangy and creamy and it added so much flavor as a topping for everything we could think of – pork carnitas, shredded beef tostadas and even ground beef nachos and tacos. I substituted all tomatillos because I couldn’t find green tomatoes, and I used full fat Greek yogurt just because I always sub that for sour cream. One note: I’d halve this recipe since it took us almost 1.5 weeks to eat it all! Although we had fun coming up with meals that would complement the sauce, and it lasted the 1.5 week before we ate it, 4 cups is a lot!

    1. Lisa Fain says:

      Hillary–Glad you enjoyed it and love the idea to use Greek yogurt!

  3. Can this be frozen, do you know?

    1. Lisa Fain says:

      Julie–Because of the avocado, I don’t think it will freeze well unfortunately.

      1. Theodore Krey says:

        Freeze it before adding the avocado. I usually freeze it in 1/3 portions, silicon ice cube trays or muffin trays work best. Defrost, add an avocado and 1/2 C sour cream or yogurt.

        1. Lisa Fain says:

          Theodore–Thanks for the tip!

  4. Kenya Patzer says:

    5 stars
    Yep. This is what I remember!

    1. Lisa Fain says:

      Kenya–Glad it’s how you remembered it!