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100 Favorite Dishes 2013: No. 61, Old Fashioned Frito Pie at Armadillo Palace

The venison chili Frito pie will warm you up and remind you why Texas is awesome.
The venison chili Frito pie will warm you up and remind you why Texas is awesome.
Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg

This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape. It's a list to drool over.

There are a few things I sorely missed when I was living in Missouri. Texas grapefruit. Decent salsa. Gulf coast seafood. Brisket.

And then there's that one magical dish that seems to have never made it out of Texas and the Deep South: Frito Pie.

Growing up in Texas, I thought Frito pie was as much a national dish as hamburgers and hot dogs are. It was everywhere. Cafeteria ladies served it at school. Mom cooked up chili in a Crock-Pot at home then dumped some over chips. We ate it out of the bag at the ballpark.

But when I moved to Missouri -- a state that alternately claims Northern and Southern sensibilities -- I found people were baffled by the notion of Frito pie. Is it pie? Why would you add junk food to something homemade? Who even eats Fritos anymore?

 

It's okay that it's not served in the Fritos bag...you get more chili thatway!
It's okay that it's not served in the Fritos bag...you get more chili thatway!
Photo by Kaitlin Steinberg

I gave up on trying to explain Frito pie to people who clearly weren't going to get it. And I largely forgot about the comfort food of my childhood until I returned to Texas. And until it again got cold outside.

As we've mentioned on the blog before, the quirky Armadillo Palace on Kirby makes some of the best venison chili in town, perfect for warming up on a cold day. But Armadillo Palace takes its awesome chili a step further by offering it over a mound of crunchy Fritos and topped with diced onions and cheese. This meal feels like home.

The venison chili is marvelous on its own. It's a legitimate chili -- thick and hearty with the consistency of apple sauce -- with no ground meat or beans. The juicy chunks of venison are slightly sweet and gamey, and they're tempered by the dark reddish-brown chili base loaded with cumin and chili powder. It's spicy without making you reach for your water after every bite, and it's dynamic enough on its own that you almost don't need the onions and cheese to add extra flavor.

The Fritos lining the bottom of the bowl, though? Those are definitely necessary. The chili is thick enough that it won't cause the Fritos to get soggy immediately, as some lesser chilis do. And those salty, crunchy chips are the ideal complement to the smooth, soothing chunks of venison bathed in velvety spices.

All that's missing is the signature Fritos bag, though I'll forgive Armadillo Palace for serving its version in a bowl. You can fit a lot more goodness in that big ol' bowl than you can in a little bag.

The list so far: No. 100: Bangkok Fries at Boheme No. 99: Almond Croissant at Phoenicia No. 98: Bulgogi Tacos with Kimchi at Chi'Lantro No. 97: Soft Pretzel from Mongoose Versus Cobra No. 96: Chicken and Waffles at Adair Kitchen No. 95: Sweet Potato Gnocchi at Brooklyn Athletic Club No. 94: Foie Gras Mac & Cheese at BRC Gastropub No. 93: Vuelve a la Vida Soup at Connie's Seafood No. 92: Homeroom at Bernie's Burger Bus No. 91: Lobster Cake Benedict at Sorrel Urban Bistro No. 90: Uncle Daryl's Cake at The Chocolate Bar No. 89: Porchetta e Fagioli at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino No. 88: Sesame Soft Balls at Golden Dim Sum No. 87: Crab Daddy Bao at Fat Bao No. 86: Ham, Egg & Cheese Crepe at Melange Creperie No. 85: Pork Tamales at Irma's No. 84: Greek Burger at Hubcap Grill No. 83: Lobster Roll at Maine-ly Sandwiches No. 82: Grilled Ahi Tuna at St. John's Fire No. 81: Catfish and Grits at The Breakfast Klub No. 80: The Marie Laveau Sandwich at Sandy Witch No. 79: Carnissima Pizza at Coppa Osteria No. 78: Mortadella Sandwich at 13 Celsius No. 77: Lamb Lollipops at Américas No. 76: The Heights Burger at Gratifi No. 75: 'Date With a Pig' at Sparrow Bar + Cookshop No. 74: Taco al Pastor at Taco Keto No. 73: Chili Cheese Mac from Jus' Mac No. 72: Chicken Pot Pie at Kenny & Ziggy's No. 71: Lazy Lane Frites at Brasserie 19 No 70: Banana Split at Cloud 10 Creamery No. 69: Dozen Raw Oysters at Pappas Seafood No. 68: Green "Hurry Curry" at Nit Noi No. 67: Bad Ass Hambur-Torta at Pistolero's No. 66: Enchiladas de Mole at La Guadalupana No. 65: Shorty Mac at H-Town StrEATS No. 64: Squirrel Master Burger at Cottonwood No. 63: Bánh Mì at Les Givral's Sandwich and Cafe No. 62: Korean Spiced Brisket Plate at Revival Market

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