Warm and Welcoming and Good Margaritas

During the oil boom, Ninfa Laurenzo's many, many margaritas and more baskets of chips built an empire. The Ninfa's chain found a profitable middle ground between fine dining and the strip-center Tex-Mex Houstonians were used to. Recently, the business has undergone some adjustments (Chapter 11, sale of the chain), but cold beer and carne asada are still served under the Mama Ninfa's name at restaurants all over town.

Meanwhile, her family is doing something a little different (see "Mama Ninfa and her Comeback Kids," by Brad Tyer, August 6, 1998). Yes, El Tiempo, owned by Ninfa's grandson Dominic Laurenzo, offers the endless chips, snappy green sauce and warm service that made the old Ninfa's a happy-hour haven. And of course, margaritas. No soapy taste of MSG-infused mixer spoils the chill of a frozen, and whether frozen, rocks or neat, the brisk snap of lime cuts the oiliness of tequila.

But El Tiempo is not merely a rehash of the hallowed Ninfa's on Navigation, the restaurant from which the chain sprung. El Tiempo's menu includes upscale touches such as seafood, and the decor is less taco stand, more Pottery Barn mission style; it's less bright colors and kitsch, more Stickley tables and nostalgic Mexican-American portraits, blown up to three-foot heights and set in baroque gilded frames. Surprisingly, this Aztec austerity doesn't feel stark and stiff. The Laurenzos understand the alchemy necessary to achieve that quality so often blandly described as "pleasant atmosphere." You feel welcome and comfortable.

So comfortable, in fact, that you might consider ordering a couple of drinks and the crabmeat-and-bacon quesadillas ($14.95) before even glancing at the menu. Have a beer; have two; you'll want to take your time with these quesadillas. One would think that here, on the Gulf Coast, more people would combine cheese with firm, sweet crabmeat, and yet the pairing is a rare treat, and the pleasure is further heightened by crisp bacon and the smack of chile.

Besides those quesadillas, there's seven-queso spinach and jumbo lump crab dip and jumbo shrimp-stuffed jalapeños. The variety of those crabmeat appetizers foreshadows the variety of El Tiempo's seafood-happy menu, but they're a hard act to follow. The ceviche ($10.95), for instance, marinates plump shrimp and scallops in liquid that tastes more of salad dressing than fresh lime, and it's served with red sauce on the side — the ketchupy kind offered with country club shrimp cocktail. Not bad, just odd.

Guacamole here is a build-your-own affair, with all the ingredients served separately: mashed avocado, sliced limes, diced tomato, diced onion and diced garlic in olive oil. Each is arranged artfully, in a way that showcases the freshness of the produce, and the presentation will perhaps be a boon to picky diners (you can have guac without onion, if you're like that). But I'm not sure we need to work that hard for guacamole, especially when there are famous fajitas to build.

Yes, the fajitas by which the Laurenzo family did so well are back, and better than ever. Fresh, fragrant tortillas stand ready to wrap fresh, hearty hunks of meat that never suffer the fatal stringiness of so many skirt steaks. You got your beef (plain ol' skirt steak, $24.95 for one pound, enough for two hungry people) or prime fillet ($31.95), chicken ($23.95), mixed grill ($24.95), shrimp valencia ($20.95 for a single serving), quail ($19.95, same deal) — but wait, there's more — lobster tail ($35.95). All are brought to the table on anafres, adorable little hibachis complete with live coals. You get the whole mix-and-match fajitas experience with a pile of onions and chilies, cheese, rice (an unusual herby green) and some damn good beans. This elaborate presentation is delightful — Oh look, they brought us toys! — and it reinforces the feeling that atmosphere is what matters here.

Because, unfortunately, not all the food lives up to its stage set. Like other meats from this kitchen, the mesquite-grilled baby back ribs ($19.95) and similarly prepared quail (($14.95) are cut-it-with-a-fork tender but are compromised by too-sweet sauces. Were the sauces designed to compete with salty margaritas? Or were they just not well thought-out?

But, to skew the old joke, the portions are so large. Instead of delicate gourmet fare, you get a generous meal served with a generous spirit: fresh ingredients, $egrave; la carte all over the place, substitutions allowed. After a few margaritas and a lot of food, you can actually achieve the state of indolence promised in Corona ads.

El Tiempo Cantina, 3130 Richmond, (713) 807-1600.

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