Whenever Bob Armstrong dines at classic Tex Mex restaurant Matt's El Rancho, he gets up from his table and circles the room. If he spots a group gathered around a bowl of queso heaped with taco meat and guacamole, the former Texas Land Commissioner leans in and asks, "Are you enjoying that?"
They usually are. The appetizer is the restaurant's most popular dish; Matt's chef estimates they sell at least four hundred a week. Most patrons order it by asking for "a small Bob" or "a large Bob." Its full name is Bob Armstrong Dip.
After discovering the table is enjoying his namesake, he announces, "I'm Bob Armstrong." Matt's El Rancho tends to be packed with regulars who have been ordering the Bob for years. People gasp. They request photos and autographs. Even during this interview, Armstrong could not stop himself from visiting tables. Matt's could not have picked a better regular to name a menu item after. Bob Armstrong's dip is famous, and he loves it.
Matt's El Rancho opened in 1952 on what is now Cesar Chavez downtown, and quickly evolved from a tiny restaurant serving plate lunches to a Tex Mex destination for politicians, sports writers, and other movers and shakers in mid-century Austin, including LBJ. In the Matt's El Rancho cookbook MexTex: Traditional Tex-Mex Taste, Matt Martinez Jr. tells the following story of the dip's creation: Bob Armstrong came into the kitchen and asked a teenaged Matt Martinez to whip him up "something different." On a whim, Martinez added taco meat and guacamole to a bowl of queso, and when Bob Armstrong tasted it, "his eyes got as big as saucers." Back at the Capitol, Armstrong ignited a craze for the new dish he'd had, which politicians started calling "that Bob Armstrong dip."
Now in his 80's, Armstrong does not get out to Matt's as much as he used to. But along with his wife Linda Aaker and son William he recently joined Eater to talk about his unlikely namesake. It was not uncommon for politicians and other regulars to go into the kitchen at Matt's; Bob and Matt, Jr. knew each other well by the time he made his famous request. As Armstrong recalls, he was starving, and poked his head in the kitchen asking for a quick snack, something filling and fast. As to why the dip became an icon, Armstrong says that like everything else at Matt's, their use of fresh and good quality ingredients "makes all the difference."
Armstrong recently gained another namesake, the Bob Armstrong visitor center at Big Bend Ranch State Park, a swath of 212,000 acres he fought to preserve since he first visited it in 1970. But he's equally proud to be remembered for his dip. Armstrong was born into an Austin so small that as a kid he used to graze his horse in Pease Park. Matt's current owner Gloria Reyna's family roots run equally deep: she's a third generation Austin restauranteur, sister to Matt Jr., and has seen four or five generations of families come through her restaurant since it opened in 1952. Reyna believes Matt's has endured in Austin because, "We treat our customers like royalty. If they ask for something special, we make it."
Note: Bob Armstrong passed away on March 1, 2015, but his namesake dip lives on.