Houston Restaurant Icons Armando Palacios and Cinda Murphy de Palacios on the True Meaning of Hospitality
Food & Drink
The power couple celebrates a major anniversary and finds continued inspiration in an unexpected place
By Sallie Lewis
August 30, 2023
photo: courtesy of Armandos
It’s been forty-five years since Armando Palacios started his namesake restaurant in Houston’s River Oaks neighborhood. Today, the white-tableclothed Mexican eatery is an institution in the city and the bedrock of the Palacios Murphy hospitality group. Whether they’re catering to a city with over two million residents or a rural town like Round Top, Texas, with less than one hundred, Armando and his wife, Cinda, have built a legion of loyal fans across their portfolio of projects. Here, the couple reflects on a milestone anniversary of Armandos, the renaissance of Round Top, and the pleasures of doing business in both town and country.
Where did you grow up and how did that influence your career path?
Armando: I was the first-born child and grandchild in my family in Harlingen, Texas, so I was surrounded by a lot of love. However, many of my memories are related to my father’s alcoholism and a longing to feel recognized by him. I didn’t grow up with bedtime stories or my dad at my baseball games, which made me extremely resourceful but also left me with a void that I spent much of my early twenties trying to fill. This experience informed my approach to hospitality. I always want my guests to feel like the most important person in the room.
When did you realize you wanted to be in this industry?
Armando: My journey to hospitality was a bit of an accident; however, it encompassed all the things I loved. Hospitality is about taking care of people and adding a dash of magic into a world that is desperate for inspiration. When you work in hospitality you are part artist, part businessperson, and at times, part therapist. You touch a lot of people’s lives and hopefully make them better.
What was the impetus to start Armandos?
Armando: I had just gotten the invitation to my ten-year high school reunion and knew I wanted to reunite with my classmates having accomplished something. When I saw an old bar was available, I had the crazy idea to open a restaurant. The rent was $400 a month and I needed to put $100 down when I signed the lease. I had $75 in my pocket, so I borrowed $25 from friends, went to the bank to exchange my cash for a crisp $100 bill, and delivered it to the landlord. My idea was to create a white-tablecloth experience in the world of Tex-Mex, a major departure from the casual taquerias in Texas. I begged, borrowed, and bartered to get it open. With the help of just one woman and myself behind the kitchen line, Armandos was born.
Congratulations on forty-five years! How are you celebrating the milestone?
Armando: I celebrate every single day and look for small ways to pay it back. Maybe it’s helping cover an employee’s medical procedure or doing a favor for a longtime customer going through a personal crisis. I always try to remember the little Mandito who wanted to feel love and encouragement. Success is best when it’s shared, and I wake up every morning grateful that I have an incredible wife, daughter, grandchildren, and team to celebrate our wins with.
Despite its proximity, Round Top couldn’t feel farther removed from Houston. How did you all decide to split your time between both places?
Cinda: Armando first came to Round Top in the early eighties with a group of friends. On a whim, he walked into the General Store to ask if anything was for sale. It just so happened that the former home of the first settler was for sale, so he bought it. We’d come on weekends with our daughter to watch movies, cook, and play games. We’ve since graduated to a larger property, but the essence is the same. It’s like taking a deep breath from the city.
During Covid, there seemed to be a reclaiming of America’s small towns, but you all saw the charms of Round Top long before that. What did your vision look like initially?
Cinda: Round Top really found us in business. A restaurant space became available, and we decided to open Mandito’s, a casual version of Armandos, in what was originally the town granary. Then two more spaces came available, and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Round Top is also halfway between Houston and Austin, which are two of the most populous and progressive cities in Texas. The antique festivals in January, March, and October have grown more robust every year. It just seemed so obvious that it would become an escape for this part of the state. When you create something beautiful and full of magic in an unexpected place, it transforms people. There is nothing better than watching guests walk into Hotel Lulu [another Palacios Murphy property] for the first time and seeing their jaws drop.
Speaking of, tell us about the decision to open your first hotel there in 2021.
Cinda: Hotel Lulu feels like the culmination of everything I love about hospitality and have learned as an accidental restaurateur. The grounds sit on a city block with five bungalows from the 1800s. I have a background in architecture, and we wanted to honor the history by restoring the integrity of these primitive spaces while adding modern luxuries. We closed on the property in the height of Covid and really dug into the human experience, considering what parts of hospitality we missed the most. Hotel Lulu embraces slowing down, unplugging, and enjoying the tactile parts of life, and I think people are still craving that connection.
In many aspects, you all have laid the framework for the modern Round Top through your varied businesses. Would you say you’ve used the town as an incubator of sorts?
Cinda: Round Top is absolutely a laboratory for our ideas. The original Mandito’s led to a new concept we’re currently expanding in Houston. The town has this incredible sampling of people, so we get to see what everyone responds to.
What do you most enjoy about the town-and-country lifestyle?
Cinda: We are so lucky to have roots in both places. Seeing the world from both perspectives has made me better in business and forced me to think differently. Working between the fourth-largest city in the U.S. and a town with a population of eighty-seven has helped fine-tune my observation skills.
Finally, please share what lies ahead for you and the Palacios Murphy team.
Cinda: We are continuing to expand the Mandito’s Tex-Mex brand. Tex-Mex is in our DNA and we love the way we present it to the world after forty-five years. We will continue to focus on genuine and thoughtful hospitality because I truly believe it contributes to making the world a better place.
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