So far this summer, members of the Trump administration have been cursed at while picking up takeout, heckled by protesters while eating dinner, confronted in cafes by strangers demanding they resign and, in the case of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, even asked to leave a restaurant in the middle of a meal. Inevitably, these confrontations lead to endless discussions about civility and whether public officials have the right to eat in peace.
This weekend, however, the reverse happened in Houston. A popular Tex-Mex restaurant served dinner to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, calling it an “honor” on Facebook. In response, left-leaning Houstonians called for a boycott, and the restaurant received so much criticism on social media that it deleted all its accounts.
Sessions had traveled to Houston on Friday to discuss his plans to cut down on violent crime, according to the Houston Chronicle. During his speech, he called for a crackdown on illegal immigration and a ban on sanctuary cities.
“This should be obvious: If we want to reduce violent crime, we should reduce illegal immigrant crime,” he said.
That same night, El Tiempo Cantina posted a picture of Sessions with co-owner Dominic Laurenzo on the restaurant’s Facebook page.
“We had the honor to [serve] Mr. Jeff Sessions, Attorney General of the United States,” the caption said. “Thank you for allowing us to serve you.”
The post got an immediate response on social media, and quickly spawned the hashtag #BoycottElTiempo.
Others jumped in to defend the restaurant, with some conservatives pledging to eat there in the future.
On Saturday, Roland Laurenzo, Dominic’s father and the restaurant’s co-owner, disavowed the administration’s immigration policies in a Facebook post:
El Tiempo does not in anyway support the practice of separating children from parents or any other practices of the government relative to immigration. The posting of a photograph of the Attorney General at one of our restaurants does not represent us supporting his positions. The secret service contacted us that a government official was coming to dinner at our establishment and his identity was not know until he walked through the door. The man came to dinner and he was served without us even thinking about the political situations. We were preoccupied with the secret service and catering to their wants and needs. The only thing on our minds was serving great food and giving great customer service. It was posted without review or approval by ownership and this has lead to everyone jumping to conclusions that somehow we are involved in this political matter. We don’t approve of anyone separating parents and children.
Neither of the Laurenzos could be reached for comment late Sunday. But in an interview with KHOU11 on Saturday, Roland Laurenzo said that the company’s social media manager — whom he didn’t name and who couldn’t be identified through an online search — had written the post that thanked Sessions.
“In retrospect, it was a mistake because it angered so many people,” he told the station. “We have gotten so many complaints and comments. And threats, death threats. This has been extremely shocking to our family.”
But the controversy didn’t die down after that. On Saturday afternoon, the restaurant shut down all its Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages, the Houston Chronicle reported. Early Monday, those accounts were still offline.
“People are insulting us in such a dramatic fashion, and we feel like we don’t deserve it,” Roland Laurenzo told ABC13 on Sunday. “At least temporarily I had it taken down because I don’t want to be insulted, my children to be insulted, my family to be insulted.”
He also expressed regret over the post thanking Sessions, calling it “inaccurate in terms of the totality of what we would be thinking.”
That prompted even more ire — this time from Trump supporters.
According to the restaurant’s website, Roland and Dominic Laurenzo opened El Tiempo Cantina in 1998. Roland’s mother, Ninfa Laurenzo, had previously owned a popular Tex-Mex restaurant where she “blended traditional Mexican family recipes with Italian traditions from her husband’s side,” but it went bankrupt in the late 1990s. The chain currently has eight locations in the Houston area. In 2017, the Houston Press named it the best Tex-Mex restaurant in the city.
El Tiempo’s owners have taken political stances before: In October 2016, the Houston Chronicle reported that the restaurant was allowing Trump supporters to hold a rally outside the East End location and film a music video for a pro-Trump anthem written by one of the leaders of the Houston Latino Trump Coalition. Counterprotesters also received permission to gather outside the restaurant, but Dominic Laurenzo told the paper that he was personally supporting Trump.
It’s unclear how Sessions decided to dine at El Tiempo, but it was his second Mexican meal of the day. That morning, he had huevos rancheros and bacon with Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo at La Mexicana, a long-standing Mexican restaurant in the city, the Chronicle reported.
While the irony was duly noted by commentators on Twitter, La Mexicana didn’t tout Sessions’s visit on social media, and the restaurant hasn’t faced the same level of backlash.
Manager Zulema Gonzales told the Chronicle that her restaurant, too, had received an inquiry about security but didn’t know that Sessions would be eating there until he arrived on Friday morning.
“I don’t know why they picked this place,” she said, adding, “We treat everybody the same.”
Sessions has yet to publicly comment on the controversy over his dinner.
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