Monday, December 11, 2006

Homesick Texan Q&A: Joe Armstrong

Meet Joe Armstrong. He’s a New York City publisher whose name has graced the top of mastheads such as Rolling Stone (in it’s '70’s hey day), New York Magazine, New West, Worth and Talk. He was also the founding publisher of Saveur, which under his leadership was the first independent magazine to win Ad Age’s prestigious honor of magazine of the year, not to mention became the must-read for food lovers everywhere.

Quite the character, he was best friends with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and has the ability to gather an interesting mix of people such as Bill Clinton, Liz Smith, Billy Crystal, Diane Sawyer, Robin Williams and the dearly missed Ann Richards at one table, as he famously did a few years ago at Michael’s (see above photo—that’s Joe grinning in the middle). Matter of fact, his luncheon catapulted him to the rank of Mayor of Michael’s, no small feat at this de facto cafeteria for powerful media types in New York City. He also consults for ABC and does good work for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Gang Camp for kids with life-threatening illnesses and Habitat for Humanity in the rebuilding of New Orleans.

But while known as a New York City publishing legend, this Trinity undergrad and UT law grad stays close to his Texan roots, rumored to always wear cowboy boots and more prone to say howdy than hello. I reckon you can take the man away from Texas, but you can’t take Texas away from the man. Here’s what Joe misses.

Where are you from? I was born in Fort Worth and raised on Buffalo Gap Road in Abilene. I have a sister in Plano and another sis and my great mother live in Abilene. I have five nieces and nephews in Dallas and Temple.

When and why did you leave? People have always asked: "How'd you get to New York?" Well, it was easy---I went to Ohio and turned right. I came in 1968 to stay two years, and now I have been here longer than I ever lived in Texas. However, I am always a Texan first and it is what truly defines me and that is where my heart will always be. Why did I leave? Well I wanted to be in magazines and television and the big leagues were always in New York.

What do you miss most? Big sky, big history, big humor, big hair, big burgers, and Texans that have very big personalities. Love funny folks and none make me laugh more than big Texans.

The least? People who think there is just one way to do things.

What’s your favorite Tex-Mex in Texas and what do you order? El Rancho in Austin always made me happy as did La Fonda in San Antonio. My absolute favorite for everything else was The Dixie Pig in Abilene where I was a bus boy all through high school (there was nothing we didn't fry! The neon out front said "Eatin' Out is Fun" and the sign in the kitchen was "The Customer is Always Right." I order several baskets of chips and salsa then crispy tacos.

What’s your favorite BBQ in Texas and what do you order? Underwoods in Brownwood and Betty Rose in Abilene. I eat everything.

Your chili: beans or not? Yep, with the beans and especially since doctors say it is a miracle food!

What’s the first thing you buy at a Texas grocery when home? Green chow chow for sure. A few Moon Pies for gifts (also make a nice exploding whoppi cushion). And boxes of Texas pecans for my friends. In my early days in NYC we had to go to New Jersey to buy Dr Peppers (50 cents) and some New York Texans put peanuts in the bottle like they did as kids back home. No great Mex food up here in the early days; best we could do was El Patio TV dinners.

What is the best Texas food where you live now? How does it compare to the real deal? There are no great Tex-Mex finds in NYC that I am aware of today. Readers of Homesick Texans are my hope (send in your discoveries and free all of us to live fully yet again. HELP!!!!). But long ago I discovered a motto I could live with: “Bad Mexican Food is Better Than No Mexican Food.”

Thanks, Joe! Sakes alive! I’m glad we don’t have to go to all the way to Jersey to find Dr. Pepper any more, but it's sad you still haven't discovered terrific Tex-Mex in the City. That said, I think you’ve adopted the right attitude with your motto.

So, dear readers, have any Tex-Mex finds for Joe? Let me know!

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Liz Barnhill said...

Oh man...I love Underwoods!

vlb5757 said...

I have the same memory as Joe about peanuts in the old Dr. Pepper glass bottles. My grandfather taught us to pour one small bag of salted peanuts into the bottle and watch it fizz. The best part was that one last stubborn peanut you had to bang to death to get out of the bottom of the bottle.

Homesick Texan said...

Liz--Never been to Underwood's but I'll have to check it out!

VLB5757--We used to also put peanuts in our Coke bottles, similar effect and very tasty.

joe armstrong said...

Liz Smith and I decided in the early 70s that we wanted everyone in New York to love chicken fried steak, so we had a big dinner and did it all from scratch (I can
still smell it-----so, so fine!!).
So I sat next to this big la de da hot stuff writer from New York magazine, and the minute she had her first bite, I was on her: "what do you think? what do you think? aint't it great?"
"What?" she said. "It tastes like a burnt nurses uniform." Well, I immediately jerked Liz into the kitchen and said "Lizzie, we gotta drop her like a rock. What sicko has tasted a burnt nurses uniform?"
And ever since we only do chicken fried for True Blue Texans. It's too much work for stupids. Like they say, don't try to teach a pig to sing cause (a)it wastes your time and (b) it pisses the pig off.

vlb5757 said...

Joe, Chicken Fried Steak is my ALL time most favorite meal along with some homemade mashed potatoes and all of that swimming in cream gravy. I have even gotten my half Yankee husband to love it too!

christine (myplateoryours) said...

And what is green chow chow?

Homesick Texan said...

Joe--Burnt nurse's uniform? That IS sick!

VLB5757--it's one of mine, too! You're lucky to have converted your husband, there are so many who just don't get it.

Christine--Green chow chow is a spicy relish made with green tomatoes and peppers. It's great on ham and roast beef.

Anonymous said...

anyone looking for a good tex-mex fix should try Taco Chulo on Grand Street in Williamsburg. For starters, they *actually* carry chile con queso, a dish curiously absent from almost all the tex-mex joints in nyc. Plus the architecture is very open, music is always good and the margaritas are fantastic. That said, they don't carry enchiladas, which is very disappointing.

Jeremy said...

a tex-mex place without enchiladas... thats ... so.. wrong!

BearJon said...

Joe--Anyone who is from Central Texas and loves Underwoods must be a good person!!!!

I have been going to Underwoods since the place was only a cement block/screened in lean-to (back in the early 50s). There is NO better BBQ. Most places just do not understand what BBQ is all about. Most think it is roast beef with a tomato sauce poured over it.

The best place for Dr. Pepper is from the bottling plant in Dublin, TX. They still make it with real sugar. Yes, Virginia, there is a difference. Its worth the drive just to sample the product.

And, on the Eighth Day, God made Chicken Fried Steak!!!!!!

Liz said...

There used to be a very good taco place about 20 mi east of Poughkeepsie many, many years ago. I was a Texas transplant at Vassar in the '80's, and this place saved my tastebuds' collective soul. This is about 20 years ago, so chances are slim it still exists, but I had to write about it anyway because maybe someone else will remember this wierdly decorated, hippie-owned and operated piece of heaven. My recollection was that you had to get out of the city to have a prayer of finding tex-mex in NY.

Homesick Houstonian said...

You might try Florencia 13 in th west village. It isn't tex-mex, but its closer than a lot of things. Its southern california mex, and while I'm always disappointed in the lack of refried beans, staring at all the tequila and drinking tecate make me feel a little better. Their cheese enchiladas are decent if you were a fan of chili sauce (i, on the other hand, prefer a smooth gravy).

Brin said...

Wow... I know. Deep in the archives since I'm just coming along this post in July 2007. But I HAD to kudos your Underwoods of Brownwood suggestion! I graduated from Howard Payne University in Brownwood in 2000, and ate there nearly once a week for 4+ years. You can't beat their BBQ. Or the cobbler. Or the rolls...

Oh crap. Now I'm done for! Looks like I know where I'll be headed for the weekend...



Joy said...

With relatives in Abilene and Comanche, Underwoods was a good meeting place, but Cooper's in Llano is the best BBQ Texas has to offer. As for Tex-Mex, I have been in NYC for a year and this native Texan (Corpus Christi, Austin and SA) can only get the real deal when I make it myself with a few ingredients shipped from relatives back home. We should join together for a big ol' pot luck ya'll.

brodie said...

i grew up in fairway oaks, and we would go to the dixie pig on weekend & the frosty ( or was it A&W) rootbeer stand on the north side. thanks for the flashback.

Tracy said...

well, here's hopin i make the difference in at least one Homesick Texan's life... should they also be reading this blog from 2006... following the rallying cry of Joe Armstrong, I must "send in my discovery!" of El Cantinero @ 86 University Place between 11th & 12th (just south of Union Sq) phone: 212-255-9378 ...i've been in NYC for 10 yrs and it is still my favorite! the closet to downhome TexMex i've found in these here parts!

Carol Conway-Fleisher said...

I love your quote. “Bad Mexican Food is Better Than No Mexican Food.” It's so true!

Alex said...

Woah...I totally used to live on Buffalo Gap road as a kid!

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