“Everybody goes to RicK’s.” Isn’t that the play they made into Casablanca? The film was on my mind the other night at the Houston enclave that houses the third and grandest incarnation of locally renowned Mexican restaurant Armandos. Conversation and top-shelf margaritas swirled around us, and owner Armando Palacios prowled the dining room like a latter-day Rick Blaine. Granted, the movie analogy goes only so far—I didn’t spot any Nazi officers or plucky French Resistance fighters—but my point is this: Some places have “it,” and this is one of them. Seven years had passed since Palacios closed his second eponymous restaurant, and now he was back as if it had been only a week. Are you thinking you might check it out? Good luck getting a reservation. Everybody goes to Armandos.
The place fascinates me for several reasons, not the least being the radical disconnect between the food and the decor. Normally, when a restaurant looks like this and charges these prices, you expect a temple of gastronomy run by an emotionally unstable chef doing fiendishly complicated multinational cuisine. But here you find the same fare you would in any nice Mexican restaurant. Yes, the ingredients are top-notch. And yes, there is a real chef, the talented Rafael Ramirez. But the menu is absolutely nonthreatening. When I asked Palacios if he intended to offer any exotic interior Mexican creations, he was shocked, shocked. “No, no, no,” he said. “I don’t want to educate people. I just want to serve them good food.”
And it is good. The steak fajitas, sliced handkerchief thin, came sputtering on a hot platter with strips of bell pepper and grilled onion. The accompanying refried beans were scandalously yummy (they must have been half bacon fat). On one visit, we ordered grilled snapper in a lemony butter sauce; the filet came well-done but still moist (no trendy rare fish here). Next time we had the crab cakes, which proved a little wet and mushy. Another thing I wasn’t crazy about was an order of chicken enchiladas in an almost-separating red-chile sauce. But these small flaws were certainly mitigated by the magnificent queso flameado with sautéed mushrooms. Dished up in gossamer homemade flour tortillas, it is a legend in its own time.
But enough about the menu. I want to backtrack a minute to the look of the place, because it is so at odds with the rustic food. Most owners would have gone for the cantina or hacienda effect. But Palacios broke the iron-clad rule that says the decor should match the food. As a result, with its marbled entryway and ocher-hued walls, Armandos could pass for a classy restaurant in 1930’s Madrid or Mexico City. Gazing around the room, I thought, “You have to hand it to the guy,” because if the fare hadn’t tasted exactly like it always had, if the look had been a teeny bit cheesy, and if word of mouth hadn’t spread like wildfire, the whole thing could have been one huge flop. Luckily, none of that happened, and for now at least, Armandos is the place to be. As Rick said to Captain Renault, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Bar.
Try this recipe for Queso Flameado from Armandos, Houston.