Beloved Restaurant Couple Brings Their Round Top Favorite to Houston — Exclusive New Details on Lulu’s River Oaks
Armando and Cinda Palacios Build Their Happy Food Empire, Add a Chef-Driven TwistBY Shelby Hodge // 01.04.21
Cinda and Armando Palacios at their Round Top restaurant, Lulu's. (Photo Jack Thompson)
The main dining room at Lulu's Round Top where the Chef Jose Monterrosa is now in the kitchen working on the menu for Lulu' River Oaks.
Lulu's Round Top, located in a former beer distillery, offers dining in the underground brewing space.
The bar in Lulu's Round Top is larger than the intimate bar space planned for Lulu's River Oaks.
While Lulu's Round Top has romantic outdoor dining, the same is yet in the plans for Lulu River Oaks.
Only days before demolition began at Stone Mill Bakers on Kirby Drive to make way for Armando Palacios’ Lulu’s River Oaks, we sat down with the restaurant impresario and his wife, Cinda (aka Lulu) in their home base of Round Top to talk about the next edition of the couple’s growing hospitality domain.
“It’s going to be the cat’s meow, OK,” Armando Palacios exudes. “It’s going to blow everyone away. It’s going to be simple. The food’s going to be simple but great . . . You’re going to walk in there and you’re going to be hooked.”
Since the late 1970s, Palacios has reigned as the elegant proprietor of Houston’s premier watering hole for a certain cognoscenti, his namesake Armandos, no apostrophe please. Over the years, the hopping Tex-Mex restaurant advanced to a level of sophistication that today enjoys the allure of an elevated Tex-Mex cuisine amid a lush decor reminiscent of Mexico City. And then he and Cinda took up residence in Round Top.
“In the early ’80s, I bought a piece of property. I never thought of doing a restaurant out here,” Armando says. “I have Armandos. You know, enough is enough.”
Fate, aka opportunity, intervened and in the last three years the couple has become a hospitality force in the fashionable berg, tucked in the gently rolling countryside slightly more than an hour from Houston. They rule over Tex-Mex haunt Mandito’s, Popi Burger and the remarkable Lulu’s, serving fine Italian cuisine in a romantic former brewery. In only a few months, they will open Hotel Lulu, a charming 13-room property tucked behind the restaurant.
Here in the soft lighting of Lulu’s bar, Armando, the self-acknowledged creative mind, and Cinda, the bottom line operational mind, recount their journey that ultimately led to the planning of a sister Lulu’s in Houston. The new restaurant is expected to open in June.
“I always wanted to do an Italian restaurant,” Armando allows. In fact, he had his eye on the property where Carrabba’s on Kirby stands today. At the time, it was a porn shop and although Armando was interested, the Italian friend he approached to partner in the effort declined. So that thought was put on the back burner. But not forgotten even as their Round Top spots blossomed.
“The next thing that happens is three years ago, they offered us (the lease on) Stone Mill Bakers for a little Italian cafe,” Armando says.
An opportunity for certain, but as Cinda noted, “Before we get egg on our face, we’re doing Lulu’s in Round Top. We do some proof of concept out here where we can afford it.”
After almost four years of success with Lulu’s Round Top, the couple agreed that if Stone Mill Bakers ever left the cozy shopping center where Armandos anchors the opposite corner, they would go for it.
“For us, success is all about timing and six months ago, they called us,” Armando says. “And we said, ‘Of course, let’s go.’ ”
Lulu’s River Oaks
“It’s going to be a jewel box,” Armando says of the 2,400 square foot Houston restaurant that will seat 75 for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “Kind of like the old Armandos, small, intimate, cozy.” And with tablecloths!
With the guidance of Alex Curley, new chief operating officer for Palacio Murphy Hospitality (the couple’s company), RD Studio out of New York was brought in to transform the former bakery. To lead the Lulu’s kitchen team in both Round Top and Houston, Curley tapped chef Jose Monterrosa, who formerly worked under Michelin-starred chef Fabio Trabocchi.
“This time, we’re going to a different level with a chef-driven menu,” Armando notes.
With Armandos at one end of the petite shopping center and Lulu’s River Oaks at the other, a natural synergy is expected. As Armando points out, after dinner on Thursday nights, Lulu’s guests can mosey over to Armandos for an evening of DJ dancing.