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.
"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.