El Real isn't the only Tex-Mex place with a distinguished pedigree that opened recently. The Laurenzo family, which currently operates Laurenzo's and the El Tiempo Cantinas (but is perhaps best known for its connection to Ninfa's on Navigation, founded and run for 23 years by late family matriarch Ninfa Laurenzo), has opened Chispas del Tiempo in the Heights.
Chispas del Tiempo makes no pretense at hewing to old-school Tex-Mex principles; rather, it's a gleeful mixture of genres. They offer beef fajita meat and carnitas, and they do them well. But meatloaf? Barbecue brisket? Potato salad and coleslaw? At first, it just seems weird. But then you take a bite of the meatloaf and it kind of works, not least because it's topped with a slurry of Hatch green chiles. And while the brisket won't make the pitmasters in Lockhart lose any sleep, it's fatty, tender and satisfying. As Executive Chef Domenic Laurenzo (Mama Ninfa's first grandchild) explained, they cook the meat for nine hours in an Alto-Shaam cook/hold/smoke oven, using a mixture of mesquite, hickory and pecan.
Like any new restaurant, Chispas del Tiempo is still working out some kinks. The chicken fajita strips were juicy but unforgivably bland, reminding me of Anthony Bourdain's line about chicken being the menu choice of "people who don't know what they want to eat." The jalapeno sausage was a little dry and didn't have much kick. The potato salad was pure middle-of-the-road family picnic, with three times the appropriate amount of mayonnaise. Worst of all, the guacamole was little more than a mashed avocado. I don't even think they added salt. But these missteps can all be addressed relatively easily.
Chispas del Tiempo is a fast-casual concept: you order at the counter (the menu is listed on three enormous HD television screens), serve yourself chips and salsa, then wait for your food to be delivered to your table. Go easy on the green sauce: It's refreshing, but with both sour cream and cream cheese mixed in, so rich it's basically a Tex-Mex Alfredo. Save your heavy pour for the red salsa, a fire-roasted marvel with bits of charred jalapenos and tomatoes and a deep, smoky flavor. It is not the same salsa used at El Tiempo, but as Domenic Laurenzo proudly told me, it has been a cherished family recipe for more than 30 years. Why did the Laurenzos wait so long to unveil it? Who cares!
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Chispas del Tiempo is located on Airline Drive just off Main Street, diagonally across the street from Teotihuacan, in the space formerly occupied by the misnamed and not particularly missed Italian restaurant Sweet Temptation.
It is still awaiting its liquor license, which it expects to receive by approximately May 15, at which point it will start serving margaritas and other libations.