clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Mexican Restaurant Owner’s Jeff Sessions Selfie Was Always Going to Inspire Backlash

New, 2 comments

It’s not surprising that the Attorney General’s visit to two Houston Mexican restaurants caused a social media furor

Attorney Gen. Sessions And Deputy Attn. Gen. Rosenstein Speak On Religious Freedom At Justice Dept. Religious Liberty Summit Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Friday evening, El Tiempo Cantina co-owner Dominic Laurenzo posted a photo of himself smiling alongside Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Facebook, and social media chaos ensued.

Shortly after Laurenzo posted the photo to El Tiempo Cantina’s Facebook page, Eater’s tipline was flooded with screenshots of the post and the enraged comments that followed. In his post, Laurenzo said that he was “honored” to serve Sessions in his restaurant, and many residents of the country’s most diverse city were furious that Laurenzo welcomed the man who oversaw the Trump administration’s family separation policy into his establishment.

Scope out a screenshot of Laurenzo’s now-deleted photo, and a snapshot of the backlash, below:

In response to the controversy, El Tiempo Cantina issued an apology and deleted its social media accounts. In a statement posted to social media after the photo of Laurenzo and Sessions was deleted, Laurenzo family patriarch Roland Laurenzo said that he does not support the Trump administration’s family separation policy. “The man came to dinner and he was served without us even thinking about the political situations,” Laurenzo wrote. “We were preoccupied with the secret service and catering to their wants and needs.” The restaurant declined to provide further comment to Eater.

Laurenzo’s response didn’t satisfy furious Houstonians, though, who took to Yelp and Twitter to voice their anger at the restaurant. “They support baby jails. Also the food is dry and inauthentic,” reads one one-star Yelp review. “Much better food at El Real, or any of the hundreds of authentic places around town.” Many commenters also noted that Laurenzo was a Trump supporter during the 2016 election cycle, appearing at rallies in support of his candidacy for president.

The backlash has also affected La Mexicana, where Sessions also dined in Houston, though to a lesser extent. Negative Yelp reviews of the restaurant are still being published, but Laurenzo seems to have inspired most of the city’s anger. That could have something to do with La Mexicana’s claim that they didn’t know that it would be Sessions dining in the restaurant, only that representatives from the Secret Service had reached out to ensure that the facility was secure. There also weren’t any photos of La Mexicana employees smiling alongside Sessions.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that welcoming Sessions into a Houston restaurant would inspire rage. Residents of Houston overwhelmingly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. This is a city that is home to more than a million immigrants from countries all over the world, including those targeted by Trump’s family separation policy and anti-Muslim travel ban. As it has risen into the national spotlight, thanks in no small part to Space City’s remarkable restaurant industry, Houston’s diversity is recognized as an important factor in making it the “next great American city.”

In many ways, Jeff Sessions stands in direct opposition to the people who make Houston great. Just after he enjoyed breakfast at La Mexicana, Sessions “railed” against immigrants in a speech at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston. In that speech, Sessions specifically called out Houston’s more than 500,000 undocumented immigrants and praised the city’s law enforcement agencies for helping deport “criminals” who are not in the country legally.

Houston restaurants have demonstrated that they are not afraid to enter the political fray, it’s just that generally, they’re on the side of supporting other human beings. Earlier this year, Benjy’s in the Village raised funds and collected donations for families who had been separated at the U.S. border as a direct consequence of policies enforced by Sessions. A group of the city’s best chefs formed an organization called I’ll Have What She’s Having in response to attacks on reproductive healthcare in Texas and beyond. In 2017, Pi Pizza stood up to gun activists who threatened to boycott the restaurant due to its opposition of the open carrying of weapons in restaurants.

Houstonians are vocal, and many have made clear that the kind of policies Sessions has supported as a member of the Trump administration are not welcome here. Some have even gone so far as to call Laurenzo’s selfie a “slap in the face” to Houstonians who are proud of their city’s diversity. “I’m fine with you serving him but by that post you have shown us who you are,” reads one Yelp review. “I won’t take my guests to a place that is happy to advertise that they support destruction of families.”

Only time will tell whether or not this photo and the online backlash that followed it will have a major impact on the long-term success of El Tiempo Cantina and La Mexicana. More than likely, it will blow over like any other frenzy fueled by social media. But what is clear is that El Tiempo Cantina has lost at least some of its customers in the chaos, and those diners have plenty of options for killer enchiladas and fajitas served in excellent restaurants that aren’t owned by Trump supporters, and don’t make them feel conflicted about their values.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Eater Houston newsletter

The freshest news from the local food world