By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
It takes major cojones to build a new Tex-Mex restaurant a stone's throw from quirky Irma's downtown and right next door to the original Ninfa's, on Navigation. It takes even bigger cojones if the eponymous Ninfa Laurenzo was your grandmother.
But that's exactly what Domenic Laurenzo did this past February when he opened the fifth Laurenzo's El Tiempo Cantina in the Tex Mex-rich second ward. It was definitely a risk, and one that doesn't seem to have paid off just yet.
To wit: The much-lauded margarita sitting before me during a Tuesday dinner was an unfortunate, sickly shade of chartreuse, a color more often found in a bottle marked "real lime flavor" in the mixers section of the liquor store than on a lime tree growing in nature. I took a sip. I winced. Best margaritas in Houston? I passed it to my friend, an expert in Tex-Mex cuisine and, to be honest, an expert in booze as well.
2814 Navigation Blvd.
Houston, TX 77003
Region: East End
Chile con queso (small): $5.99
Tamales and cañonball: $13.99
Verde chicken enchiladas (2): $14.99
Carne asada: $19.99
Fajitas (half-pound): $23.99
Quesadilla lunch plates: $10.49-$14.99
Lunch fajita burrito: $12.99
Tres leches cake: $7.99
"Yeah, that's sour mix," he said. I pushed it aside. I'm not consuming those calories unless I'm getting some vitamin C in the form of real lime juice out of it, too.
While not sipping on my drink during the short wait for the food to arrive, I noticed that, like my drink, the restaurant was also lacking. In customers. The place was full of waiters hustling and bustling around, sweating under the strain of their busy jobs. And yet, the dining room was otherwise empty.
Solid wooden chairs and tables are packed close together to accommodate the maximum number of patrons, but both that evening and the next day at lunch El Tiempo was oddly bereft of customers. The parking lot was nearly empty, too, save for the bright blue van offering car washing and detailing while you dine (half-price washes during happy hour, naturally), as if it were an incentive to park here and eat here instead of at the similar (and historic) building only a short walk away.
Perhaps because of familial ties, or perhaps because of the proximity, it's difficult not to compare this El Tiempo to Ninfa's, whose beckoning sign is clearly visible from the El Tiempo parking lot across a small side street. At Ninfa's you get history, you get waiters who stop at your table and chat, you get a communal dining experience no matter how many people are sitting at your table. You get consistent food and great margaritas.
At El Tiempo on Navigation, they seem to still be figuring all that out. Domenic Laurenzo and his father, Roland, opened the first El Tiempo in Upper Kirby in 1998, then expanded the empire to include several other El Tiempos, as well as Laurenzo's Prime Rib, an Italian-Mexican-Steakhouse restaurant. Laurenzo's is known for great meat in generous portions, and El Tiempo has become famous for its fajitas and margaritas, two things the newest addition hasn't yet mastered.
A few menu items at the branch on Navigation are gems of Tex-Mex cuisine, namely the queso flameado and the homemade salsas, but others, such as the fajitas, were chewy and lackluster. And the margaritas? I can only imagine that the force that was Mama Ninfa would take one sip and politely tell the server, "Thanks, but no thanks." Then she'd gracefully walk next door to her namesake for a proper drink.
Anyone familiar with the history of Tex-Mex in Houston is likely aware of the Ninfa's chain's boom and bust, from its beginning in the 1990s through 2006, when the Ninfa's on Navigation severed ties with all the namesakes and the Laurenzos. The first El Tiempo was the family's attempt to get the Laurenzo name back out there in Houston and re-establish that Ninfa knew what she was doing when she opened her first taco stand way back in 1973. The Original Ninfa's remains a testament to the family's skills in creating and operating a successful and consistently good Tex-Mex restaurant. Why Domenic Laurenzo felt the need to open a similar but (so far) subpar family restaurant next door is beyond me.
There's no doubt that Laurenzo is a skilled general contractor. He has traveled across Mexico in search of decorative pieces for his restaurants, and they reflect the Mexican aesthetic without looking like an amusement-park Mexican restaurant or something you'd find on San Antonio's Riverwalk. There aren't any mariachis in full regalia or overly bright tilework or neon signs flashing "Corona" or "Tecate."
Instead, there's rustic woodwork, intricate wrought iron and giant carved wooden toros and caballos that greet guests at the door and usher them into the dining room. Oversized Medieval-style round chandeliers hang from the ceiling, emitting soft, yellow light from their decorative glass lamps. Outside, there are cactus and yucca gardens accented by bright turquoise ironwork flanking paths that lead toward the stucco building. It's truly a beautiful space, and it makes me wonder if interior design — rather than menu design — is the Laurenzo family's new calling.
At this El Tiempo, the permutations of the basic tortillas, cheese, meat and salsa are seemingly endless, which isn't unusual for a Tex-Mex menu, but this menu isn't solely Mexican-inspired. Laurenzo pays homage to his Italian heritage with dishes like calamari and Caesar salad, but he's also bragged on his Spanish-inspired paella, which is served as a side with many of the main dishes in lieu of the traditional Spanish rice. I ate it, but I didn't realize it was "paella" until I later read its description on the menu.
Where El Tiempo truly excels is cheese. Queso flameado is offered up six different ways, but the best iteration is the traditional choriqueso — traditional in style, that is, though not in name. It's delivered to the table on a large tray containing a sizable ramekin of cheese, a bowl of spicy crumbled chorizo, a tortilla warmer filled with four fresh tortillas and two soup spoons. Much to my surprise, the waiter proceeded to mix the queso flameado himself, adding a spoonful of chorizo at a time and stirring until the meat and cheese were one glorious, greasy unit. He then skillfully scooped out the cheese in quarters and wrapped it in the soft flour tortillas, using the two spoons as if they were oversized chopsticks. I loved the choriqueso not only for the presentation, but also because the queso and chorizo burritos were rich, fatty, spicy and mighty filling for an $11 appetizer.
The tortillas alone were rich and silky, and they're clearly made with lard, which gives a smooth texture that only pure fat can create. The simple salsa, brought to the table with chips at any self-respecting Mexican restaurant, were above average as well. I appreciated that the spicy red homemade salsa was served warm, while the mild green avocado and tomatillo-based sauce was like a cool, creamy soup meant to be slurped with corn-chip spoons. I dumped it on everything I ate.
A not-so-classic-but-still-tasty-and-interesting dish is El Tiempo's "Cañonball." Though I've heard whispers that the cannonball might be on other Tex-Mex menus in town, I hadn't before encountered one. It's half an avocado stuffed with gooey jack cheese and beef or shrimp, then breaded and fried. On the plate, it is indeed a round, cannonball-size mass of greasy, artery-clogging crust wrapped around salty, molten cheese. The cheese is so hot and melty that it can easily be stretched more than two feet in length (I measured), but even the fun of playing with my food couldn't keep me from enjoying the warm, toasty crunch of the fried crust, the smooth, gooey jack cheese or the refreshing and creamy pop of ripe green avocado.
The cañonball was served with tamales, which unfortunately were a major disappointment, as were the chicken enchiladas. Both come smothered in a ground beef chili sauce that serves only to mask the dry, crumbly, tasteless masa in the tamales and the bland, boring enchiladas. In each case, an excess of ground corn in different forms (masa and tortillas) takes away from pork and chicken that were tender and delicately spicy.
It's a shame when good Tex-Mex intentions go awry, as they clearly did with the beef fajitas. This unfortunate rendition of the classic dish was my greatest disappointment, particularly because the recipe supposedly comes straight from Mama Ninfa. The charred, meaty flavor is all there, but the spindly strips of overcooked and underseasoned beef are desiccated and difficult to chew. For the sake of propriety, I chomped on that beef until my jaw was sore, but ultimately gave up and spat it out. Maybe next time, El Tiempo. Maybe next time.
The Laurenzo family has come full circle, it seems, from Original Ninfa's on Navigation to Ninfa's restaurants as far afield as Germany, and back to the same city block where the Tex-Mex legend was born. Though the Original Ninfa's is no longer part of the Laurenzo empire, it maintains the thoughtfulness and consistency that turned the small Tex-Mex joint into a sensation. El Tiempo has the potential for such greatness. It's just not there yet, as evidenced by the subpar margaritas and leathery strips of grilled meat for the fajitas.
As a test, I visited the El Tiempo on Richmond on a Friday evening and enjoyed a genuinely good margarita. Their fajitas were pretty solid, too, and the large crowd there appeared completely satisfied with the food and drinks. This newest restaurant — the one seemingly closest to the Laurenzos' hearts — appears to be the only one truly missing the mark. It could be growing pains or a poor kitchen staff, or it could be the pressure of operating in the shadow of Mama Ninfa's behemoth of a Tex-Mex restaurant.
Inside this El Tiempo hangs a portrait of Ninfa Laurenzo in her glory days, and around it, photographs of various members of the famous family. The entire place is a veritable shrine, inviting people to enter and remember the Laurenzos and their impact on Tex-Mex cuisine in Houston.
But the pictures shouldn't be necessary. The food, rather than the well-designed building casting shadows and sideways glances at its former cousin next door, should be doing the talking.
I went here not that long ago and ordered my food and less than ten minutes later my meal was in front of me, which was very unusual. I had the enchiladas and the next day I was sick to my stomach. I will never eat here again!
"They took the risk to open next to Ninfa's on Navigation, and we're not** sure it's paying off for El Tiempo Cantina. Find out more in this week's Cafe review."
The first time we ate at El Tiempo (montrose) it was fantastic! Then, reality set in, and all subsequent times (and locations) the food was mediocre and we really noticed how overpriced it is for Mexican food. We have our favorites, mostly small real "family" run places, and stick to them.
I've eaten at the El Tiempo on Richmond. I've had better, cheaper meals at Ruchi's and Taqueria Tapatia. The Laurenzos had a good run but their time has passed.
Beef fajitas and chicken enchiladas purchased on two recent Sunday afternoons at their Wash Ave place were surprisingly fantastic.
"Laurenzo pays homage to his Italian heritage with dishes like calamari and Caesar salad"
How is a food critic for an alt-weekly in the nation's fourth-largest city unaware of the fact that the Caesar salad originated in Mexico?
I've eaten at all three of the other locations, all of which I found to be overcrowded, over-rated, and over-priced, so given this review I'm not inclined to try their new location. Also agree that their margaritas were indifferent at best.
El Tiempo is like Chuy's without the kitschy charm or reasonable prices.
Your midwestern background is duly noted, so you get a pass. But no fear, I am here to help!
As a general rule, tamales should only be consumed if they were made by your mother or grandmother, the mother or grandmother of someone you know, or someone you know who knows someone's mother or grandmother. Venturing beyond this third degree of separation is extremely risky. Under no circumstances should tamales be ordered while dining at Tex-Mex restaurants.
The menu is excessive (as are the portions), I think a more focused selection could improve the consistency. I believe they do many things at right at El Tiempo. The shellfish, beef fajitas, and accompanying sides (especially the green rice, the refritos, corn tortillas, and guacomole) are as good as any in town for my $.
Maybe the food issues you outlined are confined to this new location and could account for the empty parking lot. Washington location FTW. Fortunately we are spoiled with options for classic tex-mex in this town.
People might jump all over you for this one, but I find El Tiempo mediocre and overpriced as a rule, and so there's no chance I'll be visiting this newer location. I'll stick to Ninfa's which is always absolutely fantastic. Not a dry tamale or subpar margarita to be found across the street, I guarantee you!
El Tiempo (all of them, in my opinion) is the second most overrated restaurant in town. The house margaritas are undrinkable, and while some of the cheaper dishes are good, the higher the price, the more disappointing the food. The parilladas in particular are bland and forgettable.
However, the MOST overrated place in town has to be the Ninfa's next door. Aside from a truly inspired blackberry margarita, I've never had a good meal there. The legendary fajitas have been served scorched, as has the burger so many rave about. Service has always been brusque.
For me, this is a competition between two evils.
Couldn't agree more; grossly overpriced for mediocre food, and watery drinks. Can't stand how the red salsa tastes burnt 90% of the time, the rice is beyond bland and the beans are just awful. Just because it's expensive doesn't mean it's any good - I could easily go the rest of my life without ever eating here again and not miss anything.
@yolatrendoid Kaitlyn's reviews are those of a slightly-above average Yelp user.
@yolatrendoid It was invented by an Italian immigrant to Mexico.
@ShitThrowingMonkey The author grew up in Corpus and matriculated in San Antonio. I don't think two years in Missouri qualifies her for a Midwestern background.
Alamo and Dona Tere can make some tamales. Those aren't TexMex joints, more like taco stands that have stood the test of time and increased size/locations. And I can back up my general rule at those places as I am sure to know someone in the kitchen by at least 3 degrees!
This board is like a trifecta of "you better don't." The Mrs. and I have debated trying El Tiempo--but not seriously. There are too many other places we REALLY like. When we schlep in from the hinterlands of Pear, we want sure things and cinches.
@KaitlinS @ShitThrowingMonkey @Nate The tamale guy that gives you the spicy green salsa sells the best "bar tamales". As far as restaurant tamales, the ones at Ninfas are really good, I swear. The masa melts in your mouth. I like getting the pork ones served on the banana leaf, with the sauce on the side.
That dude is still pushing tamales? Good for him!
As long as we're starting from the common ground that tamales at El Tiempo suck, I think your list will be great.
And my bad about you being a native Texan and all, you would think I could figure that out through blog posts but I guess you can't really tell until you talk to someone and get to hear the yall's and the fixin to's.
Cmon Kaitlin, if you live in Houston, you definitely know someone that knows someone that has a grandma that makes some kickass tamales! You're just not trying.
@ShitThrowingMonkey @Nate While tamales made by a Mexican grandmother are no doubt the best, I don't have a Mexican grandmother. So I kind of have to eat them at restaurants. Though I did buy some from a man wandering through a bar with a tray of tamales that he said his wife made, and they were pretty good. I'm working on compiling a list of the best tamales in town, so you'll have to stay tuned and let me know how I do when it comes out ; )
And then I want you to find me a grandma to make me some legit ones.