Food June 2008

Cooking for a Sunday Day

At Irma’s in Houston, Mexican food is in the right hands—mothers’ and grandmothers’.
irma's restaurant
IRMA GALVAN is always at her restaurant, which just won a James Beard America's Classic award

Photographs by Thomas Shea

The best food, especially ethnic food, is made at home. All well and good to hear, but not so easy to find when traveling in a new country. Or a new town.

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Slideshow: "Lunch with Irma"

Corby Kummer narrates photos of Irma’s kitschy decor and tasty dishes.

Irma’s, an improbable mixture of politico hangout, tourist magnet, and kitsch extravaganza, is in Houston, but it serves home-style Mexican food of a freshness and quality hard to find on either side of the border. All the food is cooked by four or five Mexican mothers and grandmothers, using the skill bred into their hands and the kinds of modest tools and pots and pans you’d find in a Mexican home kitchen. The recipes are their family specialties and those of Irma Galvan, who keeps a watchful eye on her cooks and on everyone who comes in and out of the place.

The food is a dream of how, say, tamales and enchiladas would taste if you were invited to a long, loud family lunch. It was mine, at least, and a reminder that in the right hands, usually women’s, Mexico’s is one of the world’s great cuisines—sophisticated and subtle yet utterly satisfying. This month the James Beard Foundation gave the restaurant its America’s Classic award; Irma’s could soon become something of a national destination.

The chile rellenos were a particular surprise, with the look and delicacy of stuffed zucchini blossoms. The thin-walled fresh poblano peppers, first roasted and peeled, had the just-picked, vegetal flavor of squash blossoms, and the filling of soft white chihuahua cheese and onions, one of three the restaurant offers, was not far from the usual ricotta-and-herb mixture with which Italian cooks stuff squash blossoms. Each filling (the other two are picadillo—ground meat cooked with tomatoes, onions, and garlic—and shredded chicken with fresh tomato sauce) is flavored with dried chiles and fresh herbs like cilantro and parsley. But none is terribly hot, so you can actually taste and appreciate the different chile powders. The frying in a delicate egg-white batter is so quick and skillful, it could be Japanese. I was transported.

Revelations like this are usually the result of the real simplicity that comes of long experience and long preparation. “It takes forever to make chile relleno, okay?” the owner told me when I asked how the cooks did it. “Like tamale”—the other dish Irma’s redefined for me.

irma's restaurant
PUTTING THE KITSCH IN KITCHEN: Trinkets extravagantly fill the dining room

Irma’s may serve home cooking, but it doesn’t feel like home, or not like (probably) yours. The lively hodgepodge makes sense only when Galvan or her daughter, Monica, or son Tony, the two of her four children who work there, explains what’s on the menu. They have to, because there isn’t one. This keeps the feel as personal as the somewhat relentless decor, and is a shrewd businesswoman’s way of warmly dodging the question of prices. Galvan charges a fair price for the labor that goes into those seemingly simple dishes—prices most people aren’t used to paying for Mexican food.

Galvan didn’t go into the restaurant business by choice. On New Year’s Eve of 1981 her husband, Louis, a cancer researcher at Baylor, was murdered in a random mugging. He was 41 and Irma 39, and she became the sole support of their children, then aged 5 to 14. Friends had long urged her to open a restaurant: when she was growing up, in Brownsville and then Houston, she was the main cook for her two siblings (their mother, a single parent, worked), and Sundays were spent cooking with female relatives for an extended family that could number as many as 60.

I asked Galvan whether she considered the food she learned and now serves to be Tex-Mex or Mexican—a malleable distinction. She replied that she prefers to avoid the question by calling it “home-cooked authentic” or “authentic poor people’s food.” Her mother and most of her family came from Mate­huala, a town between Guadelajara and Monterrey; the women she hires come from states such as Veracruz, which is renowned for its cuisine. She tells them to cook “like you cook for your family on a Sunday day,” for occasions like “a wedding, a baptism.”

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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