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

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Last week, we published an article that revealed that in only five years, 60 percent of our picks for the best new restaurants of 2011 had already closed. That’s a depressing statistic. A reader asked, “Why not write an article about the successful ones?” and that seemed like a terrific counterpoint. Some restaurants endure and a little optimism doesn’t hurt.

There’s a special group of Houston restaurants that have been more than successful. They have done so despite hardship, trial and trauma. Through personal issues, fires, bankruptcy and more, these restaurants have still managed to endure. Here are ten Houston restaurants that have stood the test of time and lasted more than a decade. 

1941: Molina’s, three locations. The original Molina’s was at 1919 West Gray. It was born when Raul and Mary Molina bought the Old Monterrey Restaurant after Raul had worked there for a decade. The business was successful and expanded to multiple locations. Among them, the one opened decades later at 5227 Buffalo Speedway proved the most popular. In 2008, after being in business for 20 years, Ricardo Molina, one of the grandsons of the founder, says, “H-E-B came knocking at the door. You think it’s a lifetime and the next thing you know, you’re gone. It was one of our most successful locations — easy access from downtown, great place for happy hour, great neighborhood. Just perfect. It took us almost four years to find a new space, but we got lucky in finally finding it at our West University location." The week of September 11, Molina’s will celebrate its 75th anniversary in business.

1949: Three Brothers Bakery, three locations. Most of the adversity happened before the original location of Three Brothers Bakery opened on Holman — more than anyone should have to go through for a lifetime. There would be more along the path, though. Three Brothers really was started on May 8, 1949, by three brothers: Sigmund, Sol and Max Jucker. It was four years to the day after they, along with their sister, escaped a Nazi concentration camp on Liberation Day. The Holman place had no parking, which hurt sales, so they later moved to Almeda Road. The business kept growing, so they moved to 4036 South Braeswood. Then, a set of coincidences shut down every location, as described by Robb Walsh in a 2008 article: "The Sugar Land location went out of business in July 2006 after 20 years thanks to the diversion of traffic during highway construction. The River Oaks shopping center location was closed in May 2007 when the center was scheduled for demolition. Hurricane Ike took out the main location and production bakery on South Braeswood."After nine months, the Braeswood location reopened. These days, there are two more locations: one on 12393 Kingsride in Memorial and another at 4606 Washington Avenue.

1967: Brennan’s of Houston, 3300 Smith. This has long been one of Houston’s favorite places for birthdays, celebrations or even just hanging out on the gorgeous patio during happy hour. In September 2008, Hurricane Ike mercilessly whipped its way through Houston and, in the process, sent a fire roaring through the premises. It destroyed everything except the brick and, curiously, the awning with the Brennan’s logo near the front door. Soon after, chef Randy Evans took his leave to go open a restaurant of his own. Brennan’s of Houston was rebuilt, better than ever, and thrives to this day as a mainstay of fresh Gulf coast fare and sumptuous New Orleans-style brunches.

1973: The Original Ninfa’s On Navigation, 2704 Navigation. When “Mama” Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo first opened her little ten-seat restaurant to keep her tortilla factory afloat, it was simply called Ninfa’s. It was so successful that a second location, on Westheimer, followed two years later. By 1982, there were 13 Ninfa’s. Entering into a joint venture with another company to reduce risk was the beginning of the end. Thanks to a bunch of corporate maneuvering, by 1998 the Laurenzo family no longer had control of or involvement in the restaurant their matriarch had started. Since mid-2006, the original Ninfa’s has been owned by Legacy Restaurants and, in all fairness, the company has done a fine job of taking care of the legacy, even if it bought into it. Chef Alex Padilla probably doesn’t get nearly the respect he deserves for carrying the torch of Tex-Mex history.

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.

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). 

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. 

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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