In a big, bold move that throws The Original Ninfa's on Navigation an ever-so-slightly threatening glance, El Tiempo Cantina opens today on Navigation Boulevard, just a stone's throw away from Ninfa's. While the El Tiempo building structure is brand spanking new to Navigation, the family that owns the now five Houston area locations -- the Laurenzo family -- is everything but new to the Navigation Boulevard neighborhood.
In 1949, newlyweds Domenic Tommy and Ninfa Laurenzo traded Rhode Island's cold for Houston's warmth, a decision said to be made based on the flip of a coin. Shortly after their arrival in Houston, the couple opened up a tortilla factory at the intersection of Engelke and Navigation. Five years later, the couple moved their factory five blocks west on Navigation and bought a home right next door. Working long hours to produce tortillas that they sold to Weingarten's Randall's, Minimax and other grocery stores around the city, the Laurenzo family made a happy, comfortable living for themselves for many years.
Sadly, a cerebral hemorrhage took the life of Domenic Laurenzo in 1969, leaving Ninfa to to run the tortilla factory, with help from their five children: Roland, Jack, Phyllis (married to Tony Mandola), Tommy and Gino.
In order to purchase more equipment for the tortilla factory and keep it compliant with FDA regulations, Ninfa pulled resources -- a small loan from a friend, second-hand furniture, pots and pans that she already owned -- to open up a small restaurant in the front part of the tortilla factory building. The Tex-Mex restaurant, unlike any other at the time, quickly gained popularity for to its signature cuisine -- skirt steak in the form of tacos al carbon and sizzling beef fajitas -- and its friendly hospitality, which earned Ninfa the nickname "Mama Ninfa".
Given the restaurant's success, Mama Ninfa opened many more locations. While the Laurenzo family operated these restaurants successfully for years, expansions that took place too quickly for the amount of capital that the family had access to forced their businesses into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Ninfa's restaurants were sold in 1998.
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Ten years later, Ninfa's oldest son, Roland, opened El Tiempo Cantina on Richmond with the help of his brothers and sisters, his wife Blanca, and their children: Domenic, Dante, Rocco and Joey.
Today, several El Tiempo restaurants later, Domenic serves as executive chef for the five El Tiempo locations. And although Mama Ninfa lost a battle to cancer in 2001 at the age of 77, she is now remembered as a Tex-Mex pioneer and icon.
As for El Tiempo Cantina and the Laurenzo family, they have come full circle in the Houston restaurant scene with the opening of the Navigation Boulevard spot. At its latest restaurant and bar, diners can expect the same familiar menu that has made El Tiempo a Houston icon: strong margaritas, home-made tortillas, sizzling fajitas, crab nachos and enchiladas and a creamy green sauce that is good enough to drink.
El Tiempo opens today at 11 a.m. During its first month in operation, reservations will not be accepted. So get there early, as you will be the one doing full circles -- in the parking lot -- should you try to visit this soon-to-be-hotspot during peak hours.