It had to happen. The way Houstonians mix and match elements of our disparate cooking styles, sooner or later somebody was going to put shredded and chile-peppered brisket inside a flauta. And it's a genius idea, as I discovered when I visited the new El Tiempo on Navigation Blvd. last week.
I was eager to check out the venue in which the Laurenzo family will be throwing down right next door to Ninfa's on Navigation, the restaurant where matriarch Ninfa Laurenzo launched the tacos al carbon (and eventually fajitas) craze, starting back in the 1970s. The Laurenzos sold their interest in Ninfa's long ago, but now they're back in the neighborhood with a vast palace of tile and stucco and papel picado, studded with huge, muscular horse sculptures and bright traceries of aqua wrought iron.
Once I had finished gaping at the sculptures and absorbing the subterranean feel of the separate upfront bar, it was those brisket flautas that caught my attention. Regular beef flautas can be a boring business, stuffed with ground beef picadillo or, most often, with simple shredded beef. It usually takes a serious dunking into serious salsa to liven things up, perhaps with an assist from some guacamole. Maybe even some sour cream.
Well. The El Tiempo brisket flauta filling is so lively and chile-fied that I ate the whole long, elegant flauta in one semi-breathless sequence, without pausing once for a remedial dose of salsa or anything else. The fried tortilla crackled satisfyingly, chewy in places and glazed to a
crisp in others, and the brisket inhabited some temperate zone between soft barbacoa and steak-y fajitas.
So what happened to the potato-and-cheese flauta I ordered as part of a mixed, 2-flauta plate? It sounded as 21st-century Houston as the brisket flauta, with its baked-potato-esque topping of sour cream, cheese and bacon. But inside? The mashed potato filling was dull and scarcely seasoned. Salt, pepper, a brisk jolt of sharp cheese — any or all would have helped.
Well, that's what's red and green salsa are for. They are present and accounted for here, too, according to the Ninfa Laurenzo model: red toasty and tart, with a big tomato tang and an edge of cilantro; green mild and fluffed like an avocado mousse, barely touched by green chile.
Some things are best left as is.
El Tiempo Cantina, 2814 Navigation Blvd., 713-222-6800.