Music was the main attraction at Armadillo World Headquarters, but the food it served was an unexpected showstopper. The hippie outlaw country haven, which operated from 1970 to 1980 and brought in acts like Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, and Bruce Springsteen, introduced nachos to Anglos before Texas ballparks made the cheesy snack a junk food staple. For the touring acts, culinary nirvana came at the pre-show catering, with one standout dish—the shrimp enchiladas.
As someone who moved to Austin to write about music just a few years after the Armadillo closed, I’ve been hearing about those tortilla-wrapped, sauce-covered crustaceans for decades. There’s the tale outlined in co-founder Eddie Wilson’s memoir Armadillo World Headquarters about the time Van Morrison added a show on short notice just to try the dish Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead couldn’t stop raving about. In 1975, The Beach Boys drew too big of a crowd for the 1,500-capacity Armadillo, so they performed at the 6,000-capacity Municipal Auditorium, known today as the Long Center for Performing Arts, a block away. Still, they hired The ’Dillo kitchen to serve them shrimp enchiladas.
“They always caused a great, wonderful flutter when they were served,” Wilson says.
The kitchen was located at the back of the venue, with one counter facing the inside and another facing the beer garden. Patrons could order Lone Star beer on tap and, for just a $1, get a plate of the beloved nachos. The dishes served at the Armadillo came from the minds and hearts of the kitchen staff. The late Jan Beeman, who served as Armadillo’s head chef for many years, made the shrimp enchiladas famous. But original Armadillo kitchen staffer Becky Ricketts, who left in ’73, is credited with creating the original recipe. Also contributing was Rikke Moursand, known as the “Guacamole Queen,” who often cooked in the un-air-conditioned kitchen in her underwear and flip-flops.
“Big Rikke” had to keep on her clothes when Soap Creek Saloon, another long-gone Austin music venue, hired her to recreate the shrimp enchiladas for a private Country Music Association event in 1976. That night, Nelson, along with guest star Charley Pride, put on a concert for the Nashville bigwigs to show them what was going down in Austin—and they seemed to love what the city was serving. “I went to Nashville a few months later,” says Carlyne Majer, who co-owned the saloon, “and folks were still raving about those shrimp enchiladas.”
Earlier this year, I finally got a chance to try them. In 2019, while gearing up for an exhibit featuring the work of the late artist Micael Priest, who oversaw the posters for Armadillo, former staffer Leea Mechling looked through her old collection of Armadillo ephemera. Within her stash was a brochure titled “Recipes from the Armadillo Kitchen,” something she had once planned to pass out at a Christmas event in 1977. Inside were recipes for the housemade Armadillo bread, vegetable casserole, and, of course, the shrimp enchiladas.
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Armadillo World Headquarters Shrimp Enchiladas
“The bands were often on the road eating terrible food,” says Mechling, who now runs the Austin Museum of Popular Culture. “To receive these enchiladas was really comforting for them.”
She dug up the recipe and invited me over to try the famous dish. “They were a great trip down memory lane,” Mechling says. “Honestly, that is some really good enchilada sauce.” Made with tomatoes, onions, lemon, green chile strips, and cumin, and filled with a cheese and sour cream blend, the enchiladas lived up to the legend. The sour cream balances out the crunch of the shrimp, while the red sauce brings just the right amount of heat. Now you can make them at home and eat like a country music outlaw.