Eat of the Week: A '90s throwback Tex-Mex dish at El Tiempo in Houston

We went to the restaurant's original location and ordered the quail mentioned in its very first review.

Photo of Emma Balter
El Tiempo's codorniz asado (grilled quail) comes with beans, rice and tortillas.

El Tiempo's codorniz asado (grilled quail) comes with beans, rice and tortillas.

El Tiempo

Every Friday, Chron's food team shares a standout dish from their experiences dining out during the week. Follow along to see why we love these Houston eats.

First, some background

In case you hadn't noticed, it's '90s Week at Chron. Our entire team dove deep into the archives of Houston history and brought you stories about Selena, the 1992 Republican National Convention, the Astrodome, Asiatown's westward migration and more. The food team examined the birth of modern Indian dining, the Galleria's early Cheesecake Factory days, and how Marvin Zindler coined "slime in the ice machine."

For this Friday's Eat of the Week, it was only natural I make it '90s-themed. The first El Tiempo location opened in 1998 on Richmond Avenue, and it's still there today, so on a recent evening, I dragged three friends to the restaurant for a Tex-Mex trip down memory lane.

Matriarch Ninfa "Mama Ninfa" Laurenzo is credited with popularizing fajitas in Houston and beyond. But her Ninfa's restaurants went bankrupt in the 1990s and she was bought out, later leading to bitter legal battles with the new owners, and a rivalry that has lasted to the present day. The Laurenzo family, Ninfa's son Roland and grandson Domenic, sought to continue her legacy elsewhere by opening El Tiempo, which now has more than a dozen locations across the Houston area.

The eat: El Tiempo's codorniz asado ($22.99-$29.99)

I'm guilty of always ordering fajitas or enchiladas when I'm at Ninfa's or El Tiempo, but this time I wanted to branch out. I looked to the very first Houston Chronicle review of El Tiempo's Richmond outpost, on Aug. 7, 1998, for inspiration. "Mexican legend has it that quail were so revered by the Aztecs that they were offered as a sacrifice to the goddess Chicomecoatl," writes Kathi Mosbacher. "The plump, partially boned quail at El Tiempo easily qualify as food for the gods."

If it's good enough for the gods, it must be good enough for me. While the write-up's mention of a "codorniz Maura" wasn't on the menu, I did spot the codorniz asado, which comes with small sides of beans and rice, plus tortillas. The quail was nicely seasoned, making a great bite with the jammy onions whose charred extremities I happily scraped off the griddle with my fork. I also made sure to order "one of the best and perhaps most potent margaritas in town," according to Mosbacher.

What else?

I found the Richmond location to be the most charming El Tiempo I had visited, with its ornate wrought iron turquoise features outside and old-fashioned, clunky wood accents. The best seat in the house, though, is on the covered patio, which is bedecked in fairy lights and boasts a rock fountain.

El Tiempo (Richmond Avenue)

Find it: 3130 Richmond Ave., Houston, TX 77098; (713) 807-1600
Hours: Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.