Can’t get enough of the Armadillo

by Brian Clarey

The restaurant business is a tough one. Industry veterans know that the hours are long, the work is particularly draining and payoff is a gamble. Newcomers must either learn these realities very quickly or succumb to the demands of the market.

Seth Cox is one of those new restaurant owners who passed the test. Tonight is the one-year anniversary of the Armadillo Grill, the Tex-Mex joint he opened in High Point with business partner Pat Rosser near the corner of Lexington and Main after working in the tobacco industry for 10 years.

“Five years ago, if you had told me I’d be doing this I’d think you were crazy,” he says.

“For us it’s been more execution than, I guess, creating the brand,” he continues. “The brand was already there.”

The Armadillo Grill first came to be in the Triangle in 1993 – a Texan taqueria with a commitment to fresh, quality ingredients and made-from-scratch specialties. Oh, and tequila – they’ve got that, too. Now there are five locations, including one on the Duke University campus.

After a short dinner rush the row of booths in the dining room is quiet; a couple guys sip beers in the bar while watching the baseball game. It’s a slow anniversary evening, and the food comes out fast.

The chili is spicy and loaded with meat. The queso dip is a bit thin in viscosity, but

in flavor hits all the right notes. The chips are fresh fried.

But Armadillo Grill’s guacamole is perhaps the dish that best exemplifies the place’s philosophy of food.

It was clearly made earlier in the day, and at this late hour is starting to brown a bit – and that’s okay. Avocados are fragile things, and this guacamole is loaded with ’em. It is cold and good, and the forest green coloration means that there are no weird dyes in it.

There is also a taco menu whereby customers can customize their taco by filling out a simple form, checking off options like peppers, onions, lettuce, cheese and such. Taco filling options include chicken, chili, beans and steak, and the tacos can be served on hard corn tortillas or soft flour ones. You should always get the soft taco, for reasons I will explain shortly.

I order a steak soft taco and here it is now – a foil-wrapped beauty, big enough that eating three of them would be a challenge, with a small packaged container of sour cream. (Note to Seth: Maybe as a small concession to mass production you should get one of those sour cream guns like they use at the fast food joints. I’m just saying.)

Also: The taco came on an exquisite flour tortilla, flavorfully browned and with just the right bit of elasticity, the product

of a tortilla-making robot that occupies a high-visibility spot behind a window in the kitchen.

Seth shows me how it works. For every tortilla ordered, a ball of dough made fresh that day is placed in a cup on a conveyor belt which dumps it onto the first of three spinning griddles. On the top level the dough is pressed into a round; it flips over when it drops onto the next level and again when it hits the bottom spinner; then it slides onto a cooling plate. It’s fascinating.

All of the Armadillo grills have these machines, Cox tells me, though he says the health inspector told him there’s only one other one like it in Guilford County, though Cox has been unable to figure out where it is.

And when the first Amarillo Grill installed its tortilla-making machine, the owners didn’t initially anticipate how popular the things would become with the younger customers.

“Three times a day we’re cleaning off that glass,” he says of the window onto the machine. “Little kids’ fingerprints.”

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