Fajita Hunt

Tex-Mex Tuesday: HRW at El Tiempo Cantina

Three courses, $25 and a Chocobanana.

By Alice Levitt August 16, 2016

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Mango-jicama salad. Yes, that's whipped cream.

Image: Alice Levitt

Back on December 1, I reported on the disillusioning experience of trying the pallid fajitas at Ninfa's on Navigation. I've since found other things to love at the Houston classic, but since then, I have been remiss in continuing the fajita hunt I promised. It's also taken me until the middle of the month to take advantage of my first Houston Restaurant Weeks. I killed two birds on Sunday evening with a visit to the Washington Avenue location of El Tiempo Cantina, one of the fajita stops most heartily recommended by Facebook commenters on my original article. 

This is particularly interesting, of course, because El Tiempo belongs to Mama Ninfa's family. With Laurenzos still in the picture, it could be said that El Tiempo retains more ties with the OG Ninfa's than that of the restaurant that bares her name. Would the fajitas more closely resemble the 1973 originals?

When seated, I had to specially request the Restaurant Weeks menu, something that always infuriated me back when I organized Vermont Restaurant Week. But servers (I had at least three people regularly checking in on me), were happy to oblige once I asked. The $25 menu is quite a deal. As I ordered, I calculated that I was saving more than $10 on a meal that would normally retail for $36.77.

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Beef fajitas, photographed with little light.

Image: Alice Levitt

Courses poured out from the smoky kitchen quickly, though I was perfectly happy to nurse the light tortilla chips and famous (but disappointingly mild) green sauce for a while. I had envisioned my first course, a mango-jicama salad, as greens with chunks of mango and jicama in it. I should have taken the idea more literally. It was actually just matchsticks of the fruits, along with slices of strawberry, piled on a plate with a side of whipped cream topped with a maraschino cherry. The black-pepper-mango sauce in the description appeared to be missing. It was a perfectly nice pile of fruit (I mostly skipped the cream), but has now been added to second place in my pantheon of weirdest salads I've eaten, just below the bowl of pork neck bones served with a plastic glove for protection, that I once ordered from the salad section of the menu at Qing Hua Dumpling in Montréal. 

I was still nibbling some mango when the sizzling fajitas appeared. "Sizzling" is the operative word, because at Ninfa's, my platter was warm but silent. These slices of chunky skirt steak were getting seared in front of me, yes, but even more importantly, they were deeply imbued with the marinade I'd hoped for. A squeeze of lime gussied up the smoky flavor of the meat. Stuffed into a soft, floury tortilla with onions, some slices of jalapeño and some pico, the dish was essentially what I'd been awaiting since I arrived in Houston. And when I was ready to move on to dessert (with plenty of leftovers bagged up), my hands smelled great. There wasn't much time before the final course arrived, but I spent them sniffing my fingers like Mary Katherine Gallagher.

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Chocobanana with ice cream

Image: Alice Levitt

In reality, I was only able to eat a few bites of the Chocobanana, basically a fried empanada stuffed with a banana and surprisingly dark, high-quality chocolate. But in my fantasies, I slaughtered the thing, with chocolate running down my face Lord of the Flies-style. That's the tragedy of loving food—capacity has an end.

But score one for for the fajitas (and Chocobanana) at El Tiempo. In the future, I promise to be more on top of my exploration of Houston's spiritual official dish. And readers, please let me know if there are others I should be trying sooner rather than later.

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