By Camilo Smith
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By Sean Pendergast
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Once upon a time in Houston, a humble and proud Hispanic family earned fame and fortune on the backs of well-grilled beef strips wrapped in a lardy flour tortilla with a side of avocado sauce. And though this history omits a good many contributing factors -- hard work, determination, family unity, timing, good luck, lots of borrowed money -- the essential truth of it affirms one of the finer possibilities of Houston itself: Fairy-tale lives, and fairy-tale family sagas, even, thrive on this paved plain.
But since real-life fairy tales, unlike their printed counterparts, are rarely abridged, they sometimes grow beyond the bounds of their genre and into the realm of myth. Did you hear the one about the boy who flew on wax wings too close to the sun and took a dunking? How about Sisyphus, perpetually rolling his rock up the hill? And then there's that bird that rises from its own ashes.
Meet, probably not for the first time, the Laurenzos.
Here's Roland, a solid man with a bit of sadness around the mouth but a twinkle yet in his eye, wearing a chef's smock and a starched white toque and passing judgment with practiced eye as hot plates of food pass beneath his nose on their way from kitchen to waitperson. Now and then he slides a plate back to one of the four sneaker-and-cap-wearing guys in the kitchen for another shred of Cheddar, or another 45 seconds in the oven, or because of who-knows-what perceived imperfection.
Here's his younger brother Jack, with a belly like a hog, sweating, grinning compulsively and rushing out to the floor with a basket of fried chips and a private joke to be shared with whatever hapless diner happens to currently be unable to keep up with his relentlessly good cheer.
Here's Roland's wife, Blanca, working the books in a back office, and her sister Mary Santos, and Mary's husband, Richard, who's helping with the floor operations. And here's Roland's son Dominic, who, at 28, nominally, at least, owns this restaurant, and hell, there's Dominic's 18-year-old brother, Joey, busing tables for good measure.
And if you don't know who these people are, you might glance across the room some noontime and see Roland's and Jack's mother, Blanca's mother-in-law, Dominic's and Joey's grandmother. Her name is Ninfa Laurenzo, and if you've eaten, or even thought about eating, Mexican food in Houston anytime in the past quarter-century, you'll probably recognize her, even though everyone calls her just plain Mama. Maybe she'll walk past you, cane in hand, as you sip a margarita at the bar, say hello and ask Roland if he's treating you right.
Two years ago, these people were collectively and, in more than one case, individually, as bankrupt as bankrupt can be, a state they had achieved at the tail end of one of Houston's great entrepreneurial success stories. It was a story that hammered hard on the elements that Houston holds dear: hard work and bootstrapping, family, upward mobility, self-invention, Growth with a capital G, fame and fortune, celebrity even, and the eventual approval of Republicans.
It's not very Houston Proud to linger over the elements of greed, ineptitude, decline, distress and failure that characterize what we'll call the Lately Period, but we'll need to touch on those for the sake of continuity, since the story doesn't seem ready to end in bankruptcy after all. That's why Roland and Jack and Blanca and Mary and Richard and Dominic and Joey all seem to be working their mostly not-so-young butts off at a new Mexican-food restaurant called El Tiempo Cantina. Mama, all say, isn't working. "She's supportive because we're family," explains Roland, "and in her heart she would like to see us do well. She doesn't want to see us not having a job or not being able to make a living. That's a mother, you know?"
Roland explains all this because it is important that plausible deniability be established, because Mama simply can't be seen as being involved in El Tiempo, which you will notice is not the restaurant that restaurant people associate with this particular family. Which is to say, not Ninfa's.
Ninfa's now belongs to other people, four of whom are principals of the Austin-based Cafe Serranos chain of Mexican-food restaurants, and one of whom is local investor Niel Morgan, whose real estate ventures have fueled a variety of interests over the years, including publishing (Morgan was the financier of the Houston Press during its first five years) and, more recently, restaurants (he recently bought a stake in the Antone's chain of delis).
So if you go looking for the Ninfa's of multiple outlets and brightly colored parrots and famous green sauce and trademarked menu items like tacos a la Ninfa and Ninfaritas, you'll find them in the hands of Morgan and Serranos. But if you go looking for an inkling of the legendary Ninfa's born of necessity on Navigation Street, the Ninfa's of a bustling family presence and careful family oversight, if you go looking for the Laurenzos, or the palpable magnetism of Mama Ninfa herself, you'll have to go to El Tiempo Cantina.