First Taste

Who needs Tex-Mex? Laurenzo's Grille is (almost) all-American

Who needs Tex-Mex? Laurenzo's Grille is (almost) all-American

From its plush, blue-curtained portico to its swaggering wall display of autographed jerseys bearing names like “Olajuwon,” “Namath” and “Staubach,” Laurenzo’s Grille is a study in, well, something different.

The newest incarnation in the Laurenzo family’s long tradition of filling Houston’s well-nourished bellies, the dining spot at 4412 Washington Ave., doesn’t serve the clan’s typical Tex-Mex fare. Sure, the menu touts tacos—stuffed with rosy prime rib—but there’s not a refried bean in sight.

Is Mama Ninfa rolling over in her grave?

Hardly. The savvy businesswoman, who died in 2001, would probably give her 39-year-old proprietor grandson, Domenic, a high-five if she could have seen the restaurant’s crowded parking lot just two weeks after it opened last month —before Domenic and his business partner father Roland had done any advertising to speak of. After all, she didn’t open Ninfa’s on Navigation out of a passion for food, she did so in 1973 after her husband died of a heart attack and she had to find a way to feed her five children. Necessity, sometimes, is the grandmother of invention.

And Domenic’s got kitchen cred. He toddled about in Ninfa’s kitchens from the time he was 3. He washed dishes and prepared food there growing up. He attended Houston’s acclaimed Allain and Marie Lenotre Institute from 2000 to 2001 before diving into the restaurant business full-time at El Tiempo Cantina’s three locations, which he owns with Roland and mom Blanca.

Aside from the cooking school, all Domenic’s experience has been Tex-Mex. So what’s with this all-American eatery?

“We’ve always loved this kind of food. We eat it at home, and we have it when we dine out,” Domenic says, recalling mouth-watering memories of The Palm, Brennan’s and Houston’s, his favorite. “After all this time in Tex-Mex, I wanted to break out of the family tradition.”

His Web site touts the prime rib and margaritas, both exceptional. The all-Angus beef comes from farms that eschew hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, and the margaritas are made after customers order them, using fresh lime, lemon and orange juice, top-brand triple sec and a smooth, high-octane tequila. Besides American standards like the burgers, chili and steaks, the menu pays homage to his Italian grandfather, Domenic T. Laurenzo, with its Chicken Napoli and Spicy Shrimp fra Diavolo, and, of course, Mama Ninfa, with stellar guacamole, white chili con queso and (prime rib) quesadillas.

Some entrees resemble cultural collisions, such as the Chicken Salad Speciale, with its greens, avocado, mango, feta, honey-dijon dressing and Thai peanut sauce. It’s also a customer favorite. The sashimi-style ahi tuna steak tops out the price range at $28; the side orders of fries, white poblano cheese rice and jicama cole slaw hit the low notes at $4. Items might seem a little pricey until the huge portions actually arrive.

OK, has anyone remarked about Domenic’s departure from the family’s culinary tradition?

“Just about everybody has,” he says. “But just about everybody likes the food once they have it.”

Almost everybody.

Domenic admits he and his dad initially goofed when they came up with the restaurant’s original name, Laurenzo’s Grille dello Sport, in an effort to tout the family’s love of all things athletic — and the fact they have vintage, autographed jerseys for sale in the name of charity. Sports fans saw the sign and flocked to the place like so many moths to a Bud Light, expecting a wall of televisions blaring football and basketball. And insult to injury: the menu didn’t have inexpensive buffalo wings.

Domenic hastily yanked any reference to sports, from the sign out front to the menu items. Since he had quite a few sports-related entrée names on the menu, (the large cut of prime rib used to be “the Heisman”), the menu looks a bit naked now without them.

Menu nudity notwithstanding, what’s with the jerseys? A family friend and philanthropically minded attorney offered Domenic his private collection as the restaurant was taking shape, with the understanding that customers wishing to buy one, which range from $200 to $2,500, would write their check to their favorite charity. The friend handles the donations, making sure they get to their appointed causes.

The jerseys do seem a wee bit incongruous with the elegant Brazilian oak booths that fill the dining area and its green faux marble pillars supporting stained-glass lamp fixtures. “We were going for a homey look,” Roland says. “And we like sports.”

The 4,800-square-foot building, in separate lives both a piano bar and a laundry, has a comfortable ambiance that starts to blur warmly around the edges after one of the Laurenzos’ margaritas — just as the Ninfa’s on Navigation began to look a tad palatial after a margarita there.

(In the years after her Navigation restaurant’s near-overnight success, Mama Ninfa and her family opened 50 more in Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Germany. But their business plan proved overly ambitious, and in 1998, they sold their restaurants and the Ninfa’s name.)

At Laurenzo’s Grille, there’s a happy buzz of conversation rising from the semi-compartmental privacy of the dark oak booths along with the clink of silverware against plates. Waiters dart into the kitchen, emerging with well-presented entrees I cannot keep my eyes from, curious if someone may have ordered something better than my food.

But after two visits, I can report more than a few sightings of UFOs (ultimate food options): the guacamole, the French Dip, the prime rib, the queso and the (pucker up!) key lime pie.

Oh, that key lime pie. Whatever you do, save room for it.

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A house speciality: Prime rib Courtesy of Laurenzo's Grille
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Domenic Laurenzo works in the kitchen. Courtesy of Laurenzo's Grille
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The word "Sports" was removed from the Laurenzo's Grille name after patrons came in expecting rows of TVs and chicken wings. Courtesy of Laurenzo's Grille
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The interior features oak paneling and faux marble green pillars supporting stained-glass lamp fixtures. “We were going for a homey look,” Roland Laurenzo says. Courtesy of Laurenzo's Grille
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Don't forget dessert, especially the key lime pie. Courtesy of Laurenzo's Grille