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.
Chile con queso (small): $5.99
Tamales and caonball: $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.
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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.