This Week's Cafe Review: El Tiempo, You Have Some 'Splainin' to Do

Categories: On the Menu

Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg
El Tiempo dinners include A LOT of food, but I also want is a good margarita!
I was raised on Tex-Mex food in Corpus Christi and San Antonio. Breakfast tacos were the only way to get the day really going, and a huge bowl of chips and salsa seemed a perfectly acceptable dinner dish. I obsessed over finding the best fish tacos in town, and I learned that the best margaritas come from good, simple ingredients.

Before I moved to Houston to write restaurant reviews for the Houston Press, I was living in Missouri. I'd been living there for two years while I worked on my master's degree, and I often lamented the poor quality of Mexican food in the Show Me State. I tried crappy Mexican restaurant after crappy Mexican restaurant in search of something that tasted like home. I never found it, but along the way I did drink more wannabe margaritas than any person ever should.

In Missouri, people don't grow citrus trees. All the citrus there is imported. Now, we don't have an abundance of lime or grapefruit trees here in Houston, either, but we are capable of growing them, and we certainly know what good limes taste like. In Missouri, everyone seems perfectly happy to sip margaritas made of bottled lime juice or, worse yet, sour mix.

I thought I'd left that unfortunate laissez-faire attitude toward limes behind me when I moved back to Texas, especially when I visited the new El Tiempo Cantina on Navigation, the subject of this week's cafe review, for one of their famous margaritas. What I found was confusing.

The margarita on the rocks I was served at El Tiempo both looked and tasted as if it were made with sour mix. It was chemical-y and overly sweet, and I couldn't even taste the tequila. I passed it to my friend, who is himself an expert in Tex-Mex food, and he confirmed that it was a disgrace of a margarita.

In an effort to determine how a place that serves such a mediocre marg gets so much credit for making a wonderful one, I set out to visit some of the other El Tiempos in town to see if maybe it was a site-specific issue.

After a bit of poor planning on my part, I ended up at the El Tiempo on Montrose (also known as 1308) on a Friday evening and found it so packed with college-age folks double-fisting margaritas that I could barely get to the bar. In spite of the fact that everyone there seemed to be more than enjoying the El Tiempo margaritas, I left. I was not drunk enough for a crowd like that.

The next day, I went to the El Tiempo on Richmond around lunchtime in hopes of snagging a tequila and lime cocktail, and found myself in the opposite situation of the night before. It was empty. I sat alone at the bar and ordered a single margarita, which I proceeded to down fairly quickly, more because I felt awkward drinking alone on a Saturday at 1 p.m. than because it was delicious.

It was certainly better than the first margarita I'd tried at the new El Tiempo, but it didn't blow my mind. The bartender told me it was a mixture of orange juice, lime juice, sugar and tequila. But it tasted like watery limeade with a hint of tequila. Por qué, El Tiempo, por qué?

I realize that, in all of this, I haven't even mentioned the food. After all, I'm not a bar critic, I'm a restaurant critic. But I feel that a proper Tex-Mex restaurant has to master the basics, all of them. El Tiempo has the chips and salsas down. It has the queso. It's even got some not-so-basic dishes that are pretty tasty. But I have a hard time stomaching all of that without a smooth, tart, biting margarita with which to wash it all down.

Location Info

El Tiempo Cantina

2814 Navigation Blvd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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18 comments
Lagreine
Lagreine

I've had exactly one good meal at El Tiempo: the Richmond location the year it opened. Every other time something went wrong (oversalted, dry grilled birds, etc). One thing I could always count on however, was an outsized bill. 

erichenao
erichenao topcommenter

Shining some light on a string of restaurants that i have always felt got way more attention and credit than they were worth. Thank you for the straight up honest insight. Now, if people will just pay attention and start really tasting…

golferslk230
golferslk230

Amazingly, some of us go to eat rather than drink.  When you get a minute, tell us about the food.(Plus I think Tex-Mex goes better with a cerveza frio).

Rex McCall
Rex McCall

It is soooo hard to find a decent margarita anyplace nowdays. To much sour mix, complete deviation from the original 3-2-2 mix of tequila, lime and triple sec. All the other crap is just that. And it varies among bartenders as well. A margarita bought at 4 pm could be entirely different from the one you buy at 5pm when it' a different bartender

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

For good margaritas go to El Gran Malo or TQLA.  

LaurenK
LaurenK

Kaitlin, it's probably embarrassing for me to admit how happy I was to read this. My husband and I love the fajitas at El Tiempo, but we have marveled for years at how undrinkable the much-lauded margaritas are. I realize that people's taste in margaritas varies and some people like them much sweeter than I do, but these have a horrible, chemical aftertaste that I cannot believe anyone likes. The first time I ordered one I thought someone had accidentally spilled cleaning solution into it, but repeat attempts produced the same results. Even after trying the more expensive "gold" margaritas, we left them undrunk on the table--we just couldn't choke them down. And yet when you look on Yelp etc., I couldn't find anyone even commenting on the issue, so I was starting to think we were crazy.

WestSideBob
WestSideBob topcommenter

We need the ghost of Marvin Zindler to haunt those haunts until they learn how to mix a proper drink :-)

KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

@golferslk230 You can read allllll about the food in the review. This is just a little background info that we publish every week to go along with the review.

midtownfg
midtownfg

@LaurenK I also only go to El Tiempo for lunch since I cannot stand the margaritas.  I have asked them more than once if they had just cleaned the frozen margarita machine bc I could taste soap. Strangely, my husband thinks they are fine. We went recently and I tried one on the rocks and still didn't like it. And we have been going to the Richmond location since it opened. I guess it will just have to stay as a lunch destination until enough people revolt and they learn to make a good margarita. It is very disappointing.

LaurenK
LaurenK

Note: This is primarily at the Montrose location.

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

Nah, Marvin would haunt them until they dressed to his standard.

KaitlinS
KaitlinS topcommenter

@LaurenK Well, I was unable (no, unwilling) to get a margarita at the Montrose location on Friday night, but I gotta say, I wasn't that impressed with margs at the other places either. I say when it comes to El Tiempo, stick to anything with cheese in it. They do cheese very well.

texmex01
texmex01 topcommenter

@KaitlinS @LaurenK That is why I do not go to any of them for dinner, too packed, too rushed, too much not caring, but for some reason at lunch, its like a entire different place....

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