This week's feature story takes an in-depth look at the Houston families who developed our diverse food scene into what it is today. We spent hours researching and interviewing family members to compile their stories, but not everything could make it into print. In celebration of these fascinating family histories, we'll be posting on Eating ... Our Words interesting anecdotes and extended quotes that didn't make it into the print edition. We hope you find these folks as fascinating as we did.
The giant armadillo outside of Goode Co.'s Armadillo Palace on Kirby is an arresting sight. The first time I saw it, I slowed down and marveled at its mosaic armor and glowing red eyes. When I moved to Houston and rented an apartment north of there off of Kirby, I used it as a landmark, telling people I lived near the giant armadillo. I assumed everyone was as enamored by it as I was.
Levi Goode and his father, Jim, certainly were the first time they laid eyes on it, in Cody, Wyoming. They were preparing to open the space that's now Armadillo Palace, but they had no name for it, just the concept.
"We decided we wanted to do something that showcased Texas music and was kind of a beer joint/honky tonk place," Levi Goode says. "So we ended up taking all the stuff out of here that we had left, and putting a bar in the center and icing down the beer."
The armadillo came later.
The Goodes frequently traveled to Wyoming to Lebel's Old West Show & Auction to acquire Americana knick-knacks and paraphernalia to decorate their barbecue restaurants, and now they were searching for items to fill the new place.
"It was neat, but it's a test of patience," Goode says. "It was a two-day deal, and it was in this old high-school gym. You're sitting on these cold metal folding chairs for hours. We kind of wised up to it as the years went by. We'd fly into Jackson Hole and get a cooler of beer, and then drive to Cody. We'd sort of preview everything we were interested in, and sometimes it might be two or three hours between the different lots we wanted, so we'd go to the car and drink beer and listen to music."
One day, the pair was driving around the outskirts of Cody and passed a restaurant/trading post; in the parking lot was a big armadillo sitting on a trailer with flat tires.
"We're about 4 or 5 beers deep at that point, and we thought, 'Hey this is what we're missing!'" Goode says. "We went into the restaurant to ask about the armadillo. The owner comes out about ten minutes later, apron on, spatula in hand, and she thought we were salesmen or something. She wasn't friendly to us at all. Oh, by the way, it had Texas license plates on it from the '70s. We were like, what's this thing doing up in Wyoming?"
Father and son explained to the owner, Fay, that they were building a new restaurant in Houston, and they thought the armadillo would be great outside of it. She replied firmly that it wasn't for sale, so they went back and forth for a while, each time upping their offer for the critter. Fay refused to budge.
The story continues on the next page.
"It was the day before we were about to leave to come back home, and after much negotiating, she finally relented," Goode says. "She called us and said, 'You guys can have the armadillo, but I want to make sure it's going to a good home.'"
The Goodes assured her it was (pun intended), and then they set about the difficult task of figuring out how to transport the giant armadillo. Initially, they thought they'd just hitch the trailer to the back of their rented suburban, but they discovered that was against the rental agreement.
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"Then we went to Plan B," Goode says. "We found a guy who said he could haul it back down to Houston for us, but there were things we didn't think about, like fitting under overpasses and what kind of route are we going and how we had to get wide-load permits for every state between Wyoming and Texas. All these logistical things we didn't think about. We weren't sure it was going to make it in one piece, but about two weeks later, this guy shows up with an armadillo on a flatbed trailer."
Now, with the imposing gray creature perched out front, the family had a name for the restaurant: Armadillo Palace. They brought in structural engineers to secure the armadillo to the ground and gave it a shiny new armor of mosaic mirror pieces. They also rigged it so the eyes would glow red and it would blow smoke out of its nostrils.
"This is the secret of the armadillo, though," Goode says, leaning in closer as he's telling the story. "The woman who owned it bought it from a guy who was a DJ up in the panhandle. He used to do weddings and stuff out of this armadillo. That was his schtick. The front of it used to swing open, and it's got lime green shag carpet and a couple of turn tables still in there. There's a secret entrance to it, too."
Few other than the Goodes have ever seen the bowels of the much sought-after armadillo, but anyone who drives past that block of Kirby drive can't miss it. It will likely be sparkling in the sun, beckoning diners inside for some venison chili or chicken fried steak.