El Tiempo Cantina

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FEATURED RESTAURANT

BY MIKE PUCKETT

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El Tiempo Cantina has several locations in Houston: on Richmond, Washington, Montrose, Gessner, Vintage Park, Navigation and the new location I recently visited on Westheimer. All are strategically placed so people from different parts of the city can easily get their fix of delicious Tex-Mex favorites from the family who defines the term. El Tiempo has been a staple in the Houston area since 1998. The Laurenzo Family, which operates it, have been an important part of the Houston culinary scene since 1973 – the year when Ninfa Laurenzo, better known as “Mama Ninfa” introduced us to “fajitas”. Mama Ninfa was a pioneer in the style of cuisine we now call Tex-Mex. Even after traveling all over the world and sampling many different ethnic cuisines, Tex-Mex is still my favorite style of food.

You can’t miss the 1308 Annex, where the restaurant is located. Statues of a longhorn steer and a large, golden horse greet you out front. This location stands out, not only because of the size of the restaurant, but because the space is like an art exhibit. I must have walked around for over 15 minutes checking out all the original art. One-of-a-kind pieces are placed throughout: everything from photography to iron work. Check them out and ask questions; it’s all part of the experience.

El Tiempo Cantina makes everything on their menu from scratch and it does not go unnoticed. The tradition starts with the unbelievably tasty tortillas and continues through the salad dressings, salsas and desserts. You will always find that Laurenzo family consistency and attention to quality at El Tiempo.

The Cantina was alive and well with a good happy hour crowd which was ready to take a load off when I showed up after a long day. I was glad we were all on the same page. We ordered a couple of Modelos and figured we’d try the salsas, especially their awesome green sauce. Consider this a warning, you might want to hold off on the chips and salsas. Not only are they incredibly good, but they’ll fill you up quick. And, with the over-sized portions at El Tiempo, this is not a mistake you want to make. Do as I say, not as I do! Ha!

Enough messing around! We headed upstairs where there is a lot more seating including a balcony and another bar area. The place is big and, from the windows overlooking Westhiemer, you get a great view.

We ordered three appetizers: the Shrimp Ratones, Ceviche and the Filet Cortadillo Nachos. All were wonderful in their own right. Shrimp Ratones are jumbo shrimp stuffed with Jalapeño and a mix of cheeses which are breaded, then fried. Just the right spice and when they say Jumbo Shrimp… you have no idea. I could not stop eating them! If you are from any other part of the country, just order this app and you will get a quick lesson on why those who live on the Gulf Coast take so much pride in their shrimp.

The Ceviche was a mix of extremely fresh shrimp, scallops, and calamari served with diced avocado and fresh veggies. It’s a great starter for those who want something lighter than most Tex-Mex appetizers. So good – and did I say fresh? Understatement!

And, of course, the filet Cortadillo Nachos were just as I remembered: smoked beef tenderloin with that wonderful, smoky flavor that reminds you exactly where you are. Just another example of what sets El Tiempo apart from other Mexican restaurants.We also sampled some specialty drinks which El Tiempo is known for: the Mojito del Tiempo, the Platinum Rita, the Patron Resosado Rita and the Bellini with Sangria. Although all were absolutely delightful, my favorites were the Patron Reposado Rita and the Mojito del Tiempo. Whatever your choice, you will enjoy it.

For the main course, we went with the Deluxe Parrilla – a meat lover’s paradise! Just listen to the list of goodies: Fajitas, Rice and Beans with all the Trimmings, Super Jumbo Shrimp, Quail, Baby Back Ribs, Carnitas, Jalapeño Sausage, Lobster, Chile Relleno, and mushrooms. Each one held its own at this fiesta, trust me. The menu is expansive and I know from experience that everything on it is great, but this is what you need to order your first time here. The Deluxe Parrilla reminds me of a family barbecue… well a Laurenzo family barbecue. I’m so happy they decided to share!

Now, if you have been following me for any length of time, you know about my love affair with Tres Leches Cake. We had to try it and got a Sopapilla (a deep-fried Mexican flatbread) as well. What Tex-Mex experience is complete without both? They were both out-of-this-world! The Tres Leches was just so milky-creamy good and the Sopapilla was au point as well. Can I say siesta?

Well, the Laurenzo family tradition of quality service, fresh ingredients and made-from- scratch cooking just hit me upside the head with an experience I will be talking about for the next decade. Seriously. I look forward to my next visit with some friends from Southern California… at long last they will understand what Tex-Mex really is.

El Tiempo is a celebration of Mama Ninfa and traditional Laurenzo Family recipes. You know the saying – behind every great man is a great woman? Well, if Tex-Mex is king then Mama Ninfa was definitely the queen. And for that, Mama, you will never be forgotten.

PHOTOGRAPHY: MIKE PUCKETT

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