Friday, May 04, 2007

After Ninfa

Few people have been as important to Houston food as Ninfa Laurenzo. Through Ninfa's she popularized (some say invented) the fajita. She also popularized tortillas cooked on the premises, as well as Ninfa's famous green salsa. And she helped create a new wave of Tex Mex. Chili gravy and American cheese were replaced by grilled meats, white Mexican cheese, and simpler preparations that focused on higher quality ingredients.

Despite its food success, the Ninfa's chain filed for bankruptcy in 1996. The chain was purchased by Serranos and promptly declined. Ninfa died of cancer in 2001. The original Ninfa's on Navigation still has a great atmosphere, serves home made tortillas, and makes some pretty good Mexican food. But it is not the star of Houston Mexican restaurants as it once was.

Fortunately Ninfa's family stayed in the Mexican food business, and they operate two outstanding Houston restaurants. The first is El Tiempo, which currently has three locations.

El Tiempo stands out for its Northern Mexican-styled wood-fired grill, which is used to cook a variety of meats: fajitas, quail, baby back ribs, shrimp, and lobster. It may be the wood, but the grill flavor at El Tiempo beats just about every other grill in Houston. El Tiempo also serves a number of chicken breast entrees -- and they cover almost all of them with white cheese.

El Tiempo serves the same salsa as Ninfa's and the same homemade tortillas. But it is the next generation of Tex Mex after Ninfa's. Fajitas have expanded into a variety of grilled meats. And the standard tomato-stained Mexican rice is replaced on most dishes with a tasty green cilantro rice served in a white ramekin. Along with Pico's, Hugo's, and Teotihuacan, I would easily rank El Tiempo among my 5 favorite Mexican restaurants in Houston.

Now the Laurenzo's have another Houston restaurant -- Laurenzo's 1308 Cantina. The restaurant was formerly called Sabor, an attempt at high end Mexican cuisine run by a partnership of some Houston restauranteurs. I don't know the details, but my guess is that Sabor failed, and the Laurenzo's bought out the restaurant.

1308 Cantina is much more El Tiempo than Sabor. Although the menu lists many dishes not served at El Tiempo, the style is almost exactly the same. There are some traditional Tex-Mex offerings, but the focus is on the wood fire grilled meats and chicken breasts covered in cheese. 1308 has the same red salsa, the same green salsa, the same tortillas, and very similar cilantro rice in a white ramekin.

But there are differences. For instance, 1308 Cantina serves a unique dish called chicken breast calabaza with pumpkin seed recado. It is a large, pounded-flat chicken breast covered with sweetly carmelized onions and a ground pumpkin seed which looks like finely ground sausage. The pumpkin seed paste gives this dish a wonderfully unique flavor -- earthy, sweet, complex. Of course the chicken and sauce are covered with the required coating of white cheese. But the dish is so good, it doesn't need it. It is served with the always excellent bean soup, plus the ramekin of cilantro rice, which at 1308 is loaded with surprises including corn, veggies, some sort of fruit, and bow tie pasta (!!?).

1308 Cantina is an evolution from El Tiempo, and ultimately an evolution from Ninfa Laurenzo's little cafe on Navigation. It almost seems as though the bankruptcy and the sell off never happened.

From heaven, Mama Ninfa looks down and is very pleased.

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