|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.
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.
|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.”