At a wheeled cart beside our table, an elderly Hispanic gentleman in a server's uniform stretched the hot strings of cheese high above the sizzling serving dish, rolling and shaping it with a flourish. Queso flameado, a signature appetizer at the newly reopened Armandos on Westheimer, is broiled with your choice of either mushrooms or chorizo. We went with the sausage.
The cheese was neatly apportioned onto three hot-off-the-griddle tortillas, rolled up into perfect little tubes and presented on a white plate. The chorizo was pleasantly spicy without being overassertive and the tender tortillas were the perfect vehicle for the gooey cheese. I have had a lot of Mexican melted cheese appetizers in my day, but I can't recall a presentation as formal as this one. I wanted to ask the server to artfully spread guacamole onto some tortilla chips for me while he was at it.
Armandos' guacamole was splendid in its utter simplicity. The perfectly ripe avocado was barely mashed and lightly tossed with a bare minimum of herbs and garnished with lettuce, tomato and green onions. Sitting there on our white linen tablecloth, it looked more like a French avocado salad than the squooshed-up green stuff I know as guacamole.
The precious presentation fits perfectly with the decor. The new Armandos occupies the former location of the River Oaks Grill. The posh dining rooms and bar area are softly lit to enhance the glow of the highly polished woodwork. The walls are elegantly paneled, the doorways are set off by lavish carved arches and the main dining room is decorated with huge framed mirrors. Pottery specimens fill the lit display niches in a spectacular room divider. The carpets on the floor are so plush, you want to take your shoes off. And after a few margaritas here, you just might.
We got the signature cocktails called "Armandos Margaritas" frozen with salt. In the 1980s, the original Armandos on Shepherd developed a reputation for its potent margaritas. The first question asked about the new Armandos is: "Are the margaritas as strong as they used to be?" The answer is an emphatic "yes," according to an old girlfriend who called me to tell me about the place.
"How strong are they?" I had to ask her.
"After two margaritas at Armandos, you wake up naked in somebody's swimming pool," she replied. I didn't want to ask how she knew that.
So I said that reminded me of a rhyme: "I love a good margarita, two at the very most, three and I'm under the table, four and I'm under the host" (with apologies to Dorothy Parker). She made me repeat it so she could memorize it.
I wrote off most of this Armandos margarita lore as hyperbole until I actually drank one. The frozen margarita at Armandos comes in a big round fishbowl on a stem. My dining companion was barely a quarter way through her cocktail before she noticed the buzz. I poohed-poohed her amateurism, but I found myself slowing down on my own cocktail somewhere around halfway. If I had to guess, I'd say the drink contained around three shots of tequila.
My dining companion ordered shrimp fajitas, a sizzling comal piled with huge, perfectly grilled shrimp, each coated with garlic and spices. The comal also held some caramelized onions, which she loaded onto the hot tortillas before she added the seafood. Her only regret was that we had already finished off the guacamole. The shrimp was excellent, but aside from the onions, there weren't any other condiments to put on the tacos with it.
I ordered tacos al carbon, three tacos filled with finely chopped, well-done sirloin meat. I got two corn and one flour tortilla, just to see the difference. The flour tortilla was tasty, but too flimsy for the tacos. The corn tortillas were firmer, so they stood up better to the juicy meat. I picked up the little bowl full of chopped onion and cilantro that came on the side and dumped it over the meat. I also doused it with a bit of Armandos tomatoey hot sauce. The tacos tasted a lot like the kind you get from a good taco truck. And I mean that in a good way.
We finished our margaritas and staggered home.
On my second visit, I arrived on a Wednesday at 7 p.m. and could barely get in the door. The vestibule was packed with people waiting for a table. I finally found a seat at the bar and ordered the enchiladas verdes. They came with creamy refried beans and Spanish rice.
Like everything else I have eaten at Armandos, the enchiladas were remarkable for their simplicity. Thin, handmade corn tortillas were wrapped around chunks of juicy roasted chicken and served in a tart sauce of tomatillos and green chiles. It was just a little picante, but there was a dollop of sour cream with some chopped lettuce and tomato to cool your mouth off. Armandos' chicken enchiladas, with either red or green sauce, are $15 a plate. Spinach enchiladas are $16.
Cinco de Mayo falls on a Saturday this year, and Houston bars and restaurants are planning some wild celebrations. Doneraki will host a jalapeño-eating contest and a grito competition. Bocados will have drink specials and a DJ on the patio. Hugo's is offering live music, mariachis, folklórico dancers and drink specials. Sylvia's Enchilada Kitchen has declared it National Enchilada Week and is serving a special enchilada sampler through the Cinco de Mayo holiday.
I haven't heard that Armandos has anything special planned. But if you don't already have reservations for Saturday night, you'll never get in anyway. The restaurant has barely been open a month, and there's a two-hour wait for a table most nights without a reservation.
Why would they bother with Cinco de Mayo specials? They don't even have their name on the building. The sign standard facing the street sports a big red rectangle. There's nothing over the door, either. "Putting your name on a sign is so passé," a regular patron observed with a chuckle.
The crowd at Armandos looks remarkably familiar. I could swear that I saw all of these people drinking margaritas over at Sabor a few months ago. And at Hugo's a few months before that. And at Los Tonyo's Cantina a couple of years prior. And no doubt this famously fickle crowd will move on to the next margarita stand real soon.
But this Cinco de Mayo, Armandos is the place to be. It's also the quintessential River Oaks culinary experience, a slightly stuffy and ornately decorated dinner house with excellent, overpriced Tex-Mex served on white linen tablecloths.
I wonder how many Armandos margaritas it would take to get those crazy rich people into a jalapeño-eating contest?
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