Located next to Goode Co. Barbeque on Kirby, in the space formerly occupied by the Hall of Flame, the Armadillo Palace is a restaurant, saloon and Wild West museum. There's a saddle collection, a branding iron collection, mounted bison heads, mounted steer heads and probably more old photographs of cowboys than you've ever seen in one place. The biggest photos feature Jim Goode and his chuck-wagon cook-off team wearing ten-gallon hats.
For our lunch at the bar, we order venison chili and rib-eye steak. The chili is seasoned with what tastes like pureed chile pods rather than chili powder. For my tastes, it could use a little cumin, but overall the flavor is excellent. The venison, which is cut into quarter-inch cubes, has very little gaminess, but it's also a little tougher than I expected. Even so, its firm texture is an interesting departure from the usual mushy beef or ground meat. The chili is served with tortilla chips and little cups of chopped raw onion, chopped fresh jalapeño and shredded cheddar cheese.
The USDA Choice rib eye arrives medium rare as ordered, which is quite a trick since it's only about three quarters of an inch thick. It may not be impressive size-wise, but the quality of the meat is excellent. And it comes with an enormous pile of house-cut french fries.
I got the same top-quality fries with the Armadillo Palace's juicy hamburger, which I ordered on my first visit. The Michael Berry Burger, as it's called, features a half-pound of fresh-ground USDA Choice sirloin served on a puffy golden-colored bun. I sampled one with lettuce, tomato, mustard and mayo and paid the extra 75 cents for a slice of Swiss. The sandwich was so moist, it dripped while I ate it, yet it held together perfectly. I've never been very fond of the burgers across the street at the Goode Co. burger and taco joint, but this one is of an entirely different class.
My biggest complaint with the Armadillo Palace's menu is the $3.95 charge for chips and salsa. That's like a French restaurant charging for bread and butter. Free chips and salsa is a God-given right. Charging for them is un-Texan. And I can't believe Jim Goode, of all people, would attempt it.
As we finish our lunch, we joke around with our server, an attractive blond bartender named Natalie who tells us she was raised in Clear Lake. She has a beer opener in the back pocket of her blue jeans that she twirls with a flourish every time she opens a longneck. I ask Natalie if she thanks her lucky stars she lives in Texas.
"What kind of question is that?" she says suspiciously. "Of course I do."
"You might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars you're in Texas" is the Goode Co. slogan. It decorates the restaurant's catalog items and scrolls across its Web site.
If you don't thank those lucky stars, you might find the Armadillo Palace a little much. From the moment you reach for the six-shooter handles on the front door, Jim Goode tests your comfort level with the state of Texas and its myths.
Predictably enough, as the author of historical Texas cookbooks, I love the place. Granted, it's something of a rip-off of Austin's legendary music venue, Armadillo World Headquarters, with a lot more slick marketing and a lot less funky soul. But the amazing art and memorabilia collection is a wonder to behold.
And even those Houstonians who find Jim Goode's jingoistic devotion to all things Texan nauseating can find something to love at the Armadillo Palace -- provided they get the right waitress. I like to think that Jim Goode hired some employees who hate Texas to put Razorbacks, Sooners and other foreigners at ease. The one I met was an attractive young woman in her twenties. She signed our check with a little cartoon of a smiling face and the name Jo. So we'll call her Smiley-Face Jo.
Jo's cognitive dissonance about her place of employment bubbled up early. When I asked her if she recommended the country-fried steak, she said, "Don't ask me. I'm from the North. We don't fry steaks."
"They fry the rib eye in a Philly cheese steak," I pointed out innocently.
"That's Philly. I'm from Chicago," she countered.
I asked her if she knew why it's called a country-fried steak instead of a chicken-fried steak. She didn't, so I ordered one to see if I could figure it out.
For an appetizer, I got a "campechana extra." Goode Co. Seafood made this cocktail of lump crabmeat and shrimp famous in Houston. Instead of the too-sweet blend of ketchup, chile sauce and lime juice used in most Mexican seafood cocktails, the campechana is made with fresh salsa and lots of avocado, green chile and onion.
"I bet you don't have these in Chicago," I ribbed Smiley-Face Jo when she delivered it.
"Of course we do!" she scoffed as she set the dish down rather violently. "We call it ceviche, you call it campechana. It's the same thing," she said, stalking off. I didn't have time to tell her that the raw fish marinated in lime juice called ceviche and Goode Co.'s crab-and-shrimp cocktail are actually apples and aardvarks. But it's probably just as well, since she was carrying a steak knife.
"Here's the country-fried steak or chicken-fried steak or whatever you want to call it," she said when she came back with my dinner. The country-fried steak at the Armadillo Palace is made from a thin slice of Kansas City strip steak rather than the usual tenderized beef. Although the menu said it was "dusted with flour," it appeared to be battered like a typical chicken-fried steak. The cream gravy had a brown tinge and lots of flavor. The country-fried steak was tasty enough, but I prefer the tenderized version.
I was delighted to discover that the 20-ounce draft of Saint Arnold's Amber I ordered to drink with my dinner was delivered in one of the huge round beer schooners popular in North Texas. These thick cannonball-on-a-stem beer glasses are typically stored in a freezer. They get so cold, the beer freezes around the edges of the glass when it's first poured. And nothing keeps your brew colder longer. The waitress complained that the schooner was ridiculously heavy.
"So do you thank your lucky stars you're in Texas?" I asked Smiley-Face Jo when she brought us our check.
"No," she replied, shaking her head from side to side and scowling. "All my friends ask me why I work here, and I say, 'It pays the rent.' Hey, there wasn't anything on the application that said, 'Yankees need not apply.' "
If you love Texas, juicy burgers, ice-cold beer and good-looking blond bartenders from Clear Lake, Goode's Armadillo Palace may soon become your favorite hangout. But if you can't stand Texas, you may want to visit anyway.
Where better to ridicule rednecks in cowboy hats, fried steaks and all Jim Goode's overwrought "thank your lucky stars you're in Texas" bullshit? Ask for Smiley-Face Jo's section -- you'll be in good company.