Survivors: 8 Restaurants in Houston That Endured — Even When It Wasn't Easy

Believe it or not, the current Rainbow Lodge isn't the first beautiful location it's been in. The owners had to scramble to find an equally appealing home for the restaurant after the landlord decided not to renew the lease.
Believe it or not, the current Rainbow Lodge isn't the first beautiful location it's been in. The owners had to scramble to find an equally appealing home for the restaurant after the landlord decided not to renew the lease.
Photo by Paula Murphy

1977: Rainbow Lodge, 2011 Ella. For years, Rainbow Lodge was located at 1 Birdsall Lane alongside the gently flowing Buffalo Bayou. The restaurant was known for that stunning view, but when the landlord chose not to renew the lease after three decades, the restaurant stood at risk of losing one of its defining characteristics. Fortunately, the big log cabin with grand and abundant landscaping that once housed French restaurant La Tour de Argent at 2011 Ella was available. Rainbow Lodge reopened in the new space in December 2006 and its reputation as the perfect venue for weddings, receptions, special events or even just a Sunday brunch with a view was once again secure.

The original Mai's burned down, and the newer one has a much more modern design.
The original Mai's burned down, and the newer one has a much more modern design.
Photo by Troy Fields

1978: Mai’s, 3403 Milam. Phin and Phac Nguyen had eight children to support, so they opened a restaurant. That’s not exactly a surefire way to success, but fortunately it worked. Mai’s means “golden flower” and was the name of one of their daughters. In 1990, the restaurant was handed down to its namesake, who was no longer a child. Unfortunately, the family history went up in ashes about 20 years later, on February 15, 2010. In April 2011, the newly built Mai’s opened, resuming its place in Houston’s dining landscape as a reliable supplier of Vietnamese fare that's especially appreciated by night owls since it's open until 3 a.m. (4 a.m. on the weekends). 

Mama Ninfa's heirs, having lost rights to the family restaurant name, started over, opening the first El Tiempo in 1998.EXPAND
Mama Ninfa's heirs, having lost rights to the family restaurant name, started over, opening the first El Tiempo in 1998.
Photo by Robert Z. Easley

1998: El Tiempo Cantina, various locations. This is where the rest of the Laurenzo family story picks up. Sadly, Mama Ninfa passed away in 2001 at the age of 77. Her son, Roland Laurenzo, along with his wife, Blanca, decided to carry on with the Tex-Mex legacy. Their son, Domenic, is executive chef. (Some of the other heirs opened restaurants, too. For example, Phyllis Laurenzo married Tony Mandola, and they still own and operate Tony Mandola’s Gulf Coast Kitchen to this day.) The first El Tiempo Cantina opened at 3130 Richmond. This venture seems like it was built to last. These days, there are eight El Tiempo restaurants, an El Tiempo Meat Market and Laurenzo's, which shows off the Italian side of the family. There's an El Tiempo right next door to The Original Ninfa's now. That probably wasn't just a coincidence. 

Sylvia Casares survived being shot in the stomach by her then-boyfriend and didn't give up on her life's work.
Sylvia Casares survived being shot in the stomach by her then-boyfriend and didn't give up on her life's work.
Photo by Paula Murphy

1998: Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen, various locations. Sylvia Casares is now known as Houston’s enchilada queen and has three different locations of her Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen — but that wasn’t always the case. The very first location was in a rundown strip center at the corner of Westheimer and Synott in far west Houston. That one eventually moved down Westheimer to a nicer location, and Casares also opened a second, on Woodway, and a third, on Eldridge. Regardless, no one would have blamed her for walking away from her restaurant empire after she was shot in the stomach by her then-boyfriend, Michael Warren. He pled guilty and went to jail. Thankfully, Casares made a full recovery and still is in control of her enchilada empire. To this day, she oversees her restaurants and even regularly teaches cooking classes on topics like the communal art of making tamales.

If there's a lesson to be learned from these Houston restaurant survivors, it is this: With the right kind of capital, customer base, staff, perseverance and plain old hard work, it's entirely possible for good restaurants to survive just about anything. 


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Related Locations

miles
Molina's Cantina

4720 Washington Ave.
Houston, TX 77007

713-862-0013

www.molinasrestaurants.com

miles
Molina's Cantina

7901 Westheimer Rd.
Houston, TX 77063

713-782-0861

www.molinasrestaurants.com

miles
Laurenzo's

4412 Washington
Houston, TX 77007

713-880-5111

www.laurenzos.net

miles
El Tiempo Cantina

5526 Washington Ave.
Houston, TX 77007

713-681-3645

www.eltiempocantina.com

miles
El Tiempo Cantina

3130 Richmond Ave.
Houston, TX 77098

713-807-1600

www.eltiempocantina.com

miles
El Tiempo Cantina

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