El Tiempo Cantina on Navigation, Opening Today, Comes Full Circle

Categories: Local Spotlight

Photos by Carla Soriano
El Tiempo Cantina's newest location, a couple hundred feet away from The Original Ninfa's stands tall and mighty on Navigation street.
In a big, bold move that throws The Original Ninfa's on Navigation an ever-so-slightly threatening glance, El Tiempo Cantina opens today on Navigation Boulevard, just a stone's throw away from Ninfa's. While the El Tiempo building structure is brand spanking new to Navigation, the family that owns the now five Houston area locations -- the Laurenzo family -- is everything but new to the Navigation Boulevard neighborhood.

El Tiempo Cantina's new Navigation location is made for feeding people -- a lot of people.
In 1949, newlyweds Domenic Tommy and Ninfa Laurenzo traded Rhode Island's cold for Houston's warmth, a decision said to be made based on the flip of a coin. Shortly after their arrival in Houston, the couple opened up a tortilla factory at the intersection of Engelke and Navigation. Five years later, the couple moved their factory five blocks west on Navigation and bought a home right next door. Working long hours to produce tortillas that they sold to Weingarten's Randall's, Minimax and other grocery stores around the city, the Laurenzo family made a happy, comfortable living for themselves for many years.

Sadly, a cerebral hemorrhage took the life of Domenic Laurenzo in 1969, leaving Ninfa to to run the tortilla factory, with help from their five children: Roland, Jack, Phyllis (married to Tony Mandola), Tommy and Gino.

Drinking margaritas at El Tiempo's bar will make you feel like a stallion. Or, something like that.
In order to purchase more equipment for the tortilla factory and keep it compliant with FDA regulations, Ninfa pulled resources -- a small loan from a friend, second-hand furniture, pots and pans that she already owned -- to open up a small restaurant in the front part of the tortilla factory building. The Tex-Mex restaurant, unlike any other at the time, quickly gained popularity for to its signature cuisine -- skirt steak in the form of tacos al carbon and sizzling beef fajitas -- and its friendly hospitality, which earned Ninfa the nickname "Mama Ninfa".

Given the restaurant's success, Mama Ninfa opened many more locations. While the Laurenzo family operated these restaurants successfully for years, expansions that took place too quickly for the amount of capital that the family had access to forced their businesses into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Ninfa's restaurants were sold in 1998.

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I'm almost required to go try this new location. I love The Original Ninfa's. When my parents and I moved from Mexico to Houston, we lived blocks away on Engleke. Going to Ninfa's on my birthday was tradition.

I met Mama Ninfa in 1999. That year, His Holiness Pope John Paul II was visiting Mexico City. A group from the Diocese of Galveston-Houston made the pilgrimage to see "El Papa" and visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Mama Ninfa was one of the pilgrims, as was my dearly departed mother and myself. 

I remember helping Mama Ninfa with her bags at the airport and the hotel in Mexico. She was very kind, and even gave me a tip! She reminded me of my tias back in Mexico. So kind and sweet, but loud and opinionated. Her laughter was contagious.

Our group went to visit the pyramids at Teotihuacan, and she just so happened to be friends with a gentleman who owned a restaurant nearby. So she made a call, and after the pyramids, we all had an extravagant lunch with tables and tables of food! They even had Aztec dancers and musicians there for us. One of the best meals I have ever eaten. And she paid for all of it!

Anyway, I look forward to eating here based on history alone. I've only eaten at El Tiempo a handful of times, but I remember that the food was above average, borderline great. I will certainly give this location my full attention.  

gossamersixteen topcommenter

I hate el gringo tiempo, and their $25 fajitas. Sorry Tex Mex should never command such outrageous prices, and the quality of both the Washington Avenue and Montrose locations has gotten steadily worse over the years. I do find it humorous that the only Hispanic people you see there also happen to work there, that alone speaks volumes -- as they're clearly smart enough to know $25 for skirt steak is highway robbery not to mention the food is mediocre at best.


Probably the greatest culinary talent in the family is Jack Laurenzo, who briefly had his own place at Richmond and Fountainview, called simply Jack Laureanzo's. It was a chophouse with more Italian stuff, something you'd find in RI or NY. Sad he isn't involved in this business.

FattyFatBastard topcommenter

I love El Tiempo, but this location has "Bad idea Jeans" written all over it.


It's TexMex, not suppose to be authentic Mexican food!

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