"This is where it all started, so it's like coming home," says Roland Laurenzo from the newest branch of El Tiempo, which opened this week just steps from his mother's original Tex-Mex restaurant.
Roland, his wife Bianca and his son Domenic launched El Tiempo in 1998 when the Ninfa's empire slipped from family control. In the last 15 years, the Laurenzos have carried Mama's torch to four other Tiempo outposts.
"We didn't want it to feel like it was brand new. We've tried to hire as many local artisans as possible, which helps things feel a little older and cared for. ""
But the Laurenzos' new location on Navigation presents a bit of a conundrum for Houston foodies. In recent years, the Original Ninfa's has been lovingly re-imagined by chef Alex Padillo and cocktail wunderkind Bobby Heugel. And while it's wonderful for Mama's family to be back in the neighborhood, they have some serious competition next door.
"We didn't want it to feel like it was brand new," he explains to CultureMap on a tour of the restaurant. "We've tried to hire as many local artisans as possible, which helps things feel a little older and cared for.
"The paneling around the base of the bar is totally hand-carved . . . I actually helped make all the chairs in the dining room with our crew."
A large patio area sits along Navigation, awaiting sets of handmade cypress tables and chairs. Next to the patio, an open L-shaped sun room hugs the main interior dining room. In milder weather, the sun room windows will be opened for an additional patio area. The large room also doubles as a banquet space.
The restaurant's real magic will happen behind the scenes in a kitchen and work area that Domenic Laurenzo — with longtime friend and builder Andy Picos— designed from years of in-house experience at other El Tiempos. There's a carefully-planned tortilla area, a state-of-the-art dishwashing room and a cooking area created to be as efficient as possible.
Also cool is a freezer dedicated to that staple of Tex-Mex cuisine, the almighty margarita. The drink mix is made on-site from natural ingredients and then stored in the freezer inside special containers that keep the concoction constantly moving. A separate cooling compressor on the roof keeps the liquid ice cold before it's siphoned to margarita machines at the bar . . . Technological efficiency at its best.