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Happy Valentine’s Day: Domenic Laurenzo says that the newest El Tiempo at 2814 Navigation Blvd. is scheduled to open by Cupid’s Day.

The Laurenzo family is back on Navigation Boulevard!
by Marene Gustin
Photos by Trey Ridings

If you lived in Houston in the mid- and late-seventies, you ate at Ninfa’s on Navigation Boulevard. It wasn’t just the fresh guacamole or the tacos al carbon—possibly the very first fajitas on a commercial menu—but it was also the jovial Mama Ninfa Laurenzo herself, fussing over patrons and checking on the kitchen. She was everyone’s mama.

Domenic Laurenzo

“I remember walking into the kitchen at the original restaurant holding my grandmother’s hand when I was four or five years old. I grew up there,” says Domenic Laurenzo.

Which is why the Laurenzo family is so happy to be going back to the old ’hood.

Mama Ninfa was a Texas icon—an Hispanic woman of humble origins who rose to be a business maven. From a small tortilla factory, she opened the first Ninfa’s and went on to create a chain of Tex-Mex eateries. Sadly, in her latter years the rapid expansion proved to be too much and the family business went into bankruptcy, but Mama Ninfa was still revered as the success she was. When she passed away in 2001, Houston City Council postponed its weekly meeting so members could attend her funeral.

Over the years, Ninfa’s was bought out of bankruptcy, and a few of the Houston locations bounded back. Legacy Restaurants bought the original location on Navigation and turned it back into an icon. Some of the other locations wound up as Maggie Rita’s, most of which closed quickly.

As for Ninfa Laurenzo’s family, they stayed in the business, creating four El Tiempo Cantinas, the El Tiempo Market, and Laurenzo’s Prime Rib on Washington Avenue.

And now, they’re back, baby. Back on Navigation, that is.

“It means a lot to us,” says her grandson. “It’s very sentimental for the family. It’s where we grew up. It’s like coming full circle.”

Last October the family announced plans to return to the East End street with a brand-new El Tiempo Cantina within spitting distance of the original Ninfa’s.

“It’s going great,” says Domenic Laurenzo from the construction site in mid-January. “We started in October and had great weather last year. I think we’ll be finished and able to open by Valentine’s Day.”

The sprawling restaurant, designed by architect Frank Zeni at a cost of almost $2 million, features an L-shaped patio facing a park-like setting of paths, benches, statues, a fountain, and a clock tower. And it’s just a stone’s throw from the new Esplanade on Navigation, the Greater East End Management District’s pedestrian-friendly promenade and park with market stalls and kiosks.

All of which means that Navigation could become an important new eating destination in town.

As for the new El Tiempo, Laurenzo says the menu will pretty much be the same as at the other locations—a lengthy list of favorite Tex-Mex dishes (with a hint of his grandfather’s Italian heritage), lots of margaritas, beer, and wine. As a bonus, he is thinking of doing a few weekend brunch specials in the spacious 3,000-sqaure-foot kitchen and storage area.

“It’s very state-of-the-art, and we’ll have room to do everything we want,” he says. “I think because of the setting we’ll do a big brunch business. Fifty percent of the space has windows that can open during nice weather for al fresco dining, and it would be nice to have a few special dishes just at this location—maybe molé and barbacoa.”

And, of course, the popular El Tiempo mixed grill fajita platter of beef, chicken, and quail. “Without a doubt, it’s our most popular order,” Laurenzo says. “Even the serving for one can feed two to three people. Our customers know we oversize our portions so they can share them. It’s all about a lot of good food for a good price.”

For updates on the new El Tiempo Cantina on Navigation Boulevard, check out www.eltiempocantina.com.

Marene Gustin is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.
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