Stirring the Pot
Cinda Palacios invited to me to join her at Lulu’s, one of two Round Top restaurants she co-owns with her husband Armando Palacios, for an early lunch. For a few minutes I had the memorable space and attentive wait staff all to myself as I journeyed (at least in my mind) to southern Italy. Some patrons maintain the ambiance is reminiscent of Provence, but the aromas—fresh basil, aged parmesan and warm, rich red sauce enhanced with good red wine—didn’t let me detour. She ordered for us showcasing her lunch favorites: an appetizer of bite-sized, house-made meatballs with Pomodoro sauce on roasted polenta and a combination plate that paired a classic Caesar salad alongside a cold basil pesto pasta salad featuring bucantini, oil-cured sun-dried tomatoes, toasted pine nuts and both parmesan and feta cheese. For the record, my leftover pasta salad (thanks to the stellar pesto) was just as delicious when I slurped it up at dinner while standing in my kitchen, but the experience was not nearly as elegant.
RTR: What’s the story behind the name Lulu’s?
CP: Lulu is what Armando and our granddaughter Ruby nicknamed me.
RTR: How do you and Armando divide the enormous workload that comes from running three restaurants?
CP: We respect one another’s skills and tastes. Armando is the big-idea guy who thinks miles and miles outside the box. I’m the analyzer and the executor who catches the ideas. Every time he brings me a concept, I immediately say, “No!” Then I think about it two or three days, and we sit down and discuss it. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be as progressive. If it weren’t for me, his big ideas would remain ideas without action to bring them to life.
RTR: What’s the best thing about being in the restaurant business?
CP: I like to control all of the details, and a restaurant is the perfect environment for a dictator. Everything from the music to the wine list to the straws used for cold drinks is a decision that I, along with Armando, am involved in. Running a restaurant is an ideal job because it requires creativity, organization, adrenaline-laced multi-tasking and problem solving—and you encounter and entertain incredible people night after night.
RTR: What’s the most important ingredient in your restaurants?
CP: Our people. The people who work for us make us better restaurateurs and better people. We couldn’t do it without our amazing team.
The Recipe for a Restaurant
The Palacios family, who helms Lulu’s and Mandito’s in Round Top and Armando’s in Houston, never intended to operate two restaurants in Round Top.
“On many occasions, Armando and I discussed opening a restaurant in the old Stone Cellar because the building is just so exceptional, but we’d never talked about the possibility of opening two restaurants–especially at one time,” Cinda said.
In late 2017, they were finalizing a deal with Bobby and Ann Rausch, owners of Bybee Square, to open what became Lulu’s. Then their phone rang. The owner of the building that previously housed Los Patrones called to tell the restaurant-savvy couple the building would soon be available and to ask if they were interested in the location.
“Armando said, ‘We can’t not do it,’” Cinda recalled. “For two days I considered the challenges and logistics of opening and running two restaurants in a town with a population of 90. Recognizing that every staff person at our landmark Houston restaurant was trained to perform at least two jobs led to a lightning bolt realization.”
She continued, “We could share management, systems and staff between the locations, allowing us to take advantage of economies of scale and distribute the operational costs.”
With that business model in mind, the family team, which also includes their daughter Alexandra Palacios Donnelly, set out to open two restaurants in time for the spring 2018 Round Top Antiques Show. Under the banner of Mandito’s, the restaurateurs reimagined their signature, fresh Tex-Mex, and at Lulu’s they challenged the chef to create a menu of artisanal Italian comfort food as inspired as the setting.
“Armando has 40 years of restaurant experience, and I’ve worked alongside him in the business for the past 25 years,” Cinda said. “Even with our combined experience, bringing two restaurants online simultaneously bordered on overwhelming.”
In a blur of construction and decision-making, they achieved their goal. To provide the impeccable service that is their hallmark, the couple brought in staff from Houston and rented three houses in the area so they wouldn’t have to commute.
“I’m a fierce competitor who relentlessly manages the nickels and dimes, but I’m generous with our staff,” Cinda said. “I believe the combination is what keeps our businesses growing year after year at a rate that outpaces the market.”
Tasteful Italian Comfort
Lulu’s roots are planted in southern Italy and culinary creativity.
“At Lulu’s we gave our chef a chance to shine–and he has,” Cinda said. “Our guests, many of whom have traveled extensively, tell us Lulu’s is home to the best Italian food they’ve eaten on this continent.”
According to Cinda, the food is simple, but chef-driven with complex flavor profiles and a beautifully clean presentation.
“Lulu’s, like all of our restaurants, offers highly refined comfort foods,” Cinda said. “Our goal is to offer an array of food that invites our guests to eat with us three or four times a week.”
All food is house-made fresh daily. The dinner menu includes a chef’s selection of charcuterie, hand-tossed pizzas, salads ranging from a grilled hearts of romaine to a grilled octopus with braised fennel and heirloom tomatoes, pastas such as classic carbonara and Pomodoro with a giant meatball, entrees showcasing a rack of lamb with a guajillo pepper and cabernet reduction, and grilled salmon with heirloom cauliflower and blistered grapes.
As the Palacios family planned Lulu’s, they developed a noteworthy wine list and a complete bar service to round out the dining experience heightened by the building’s ambiance and the staff’s attentive service.
“When our guests walk out the door, we want them to say, ‘The service was impeccable; the food was deliciously memorable and the ambiance was unlike any we’ve ever experienced,’” Cinda said. “If we get those three things right, then they’ll want to return time and again.”
Stirring the Pot: Lulu’s
by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Lezu Photography