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.

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.”

irma's restaurant
MEXICAN WOMEN mind the stove

Irma’s is in an odd part of town, far from many of the city’s trendy and expensive restaurants—the “Warehouse District,” the kind of no-man’s-land that real-estate brokers officially name when abandoned buildings get turned into lofts. Today it is a prime spot for a restaurant, a stone’s throw from Minute Maid Park, home of the Astros, which opened in 2000. But it wasn’t in 1989, when Galvan opened Irma’s. She knew the neighborhood well, having worked across the street from the building for several years; she planned to cater to warehouse workers, and featured deli-style sandwiches. They didn’t sell and she didn’t like making them, so after a week she switched to delivering tacos to office workers in the nearby county courthouse, using pots and pans she carted from home.

The Mexican dishes caught on, and customers started coming in, eating at the one table, also carted from home, for breakfast and lunch (even today, the restaurant, open only on weekdays, closes at 3, except on game nights, when it stays open until 7). For a while, all four children worked in the restaurant, and one son, Louis, opened his own, which he called Irma’s Southwest Grill. As part of her innate loyalty-building strategy, Galvan taped up the business cards of seemingly everyone who ever came in, and glossies of every local figure and demi-celebrity she could talk into giving her one: today the 1970s walnut-look paneling is (mercifully) almost completely covered with them. Her natural hospitality won her a devoted political following. She was a frequent speaker at community hearings to encourage neighborhood improvement, and strongly supported the building of the stadium. (Galvan bought the building for $25,000 in 1989; she kept adding on as business increased, and over the next decade she bought up the two square blocks around it.)

Galvan filled the dining rooms with antiques that took her fancy, and more or less anything else too. Mismatched shelves and glass cabinets display collections of plastic dolls, old typewriters and radios, neon beer signs, beer bottles, souvenir china, Christmas ornaments, and Mardi Gras beads. Wildly colorful floral oilcloths are the brightest reminders of Mexican folk art.

But it is the food that made Irma’s a local landmark and the reason I wanted to go back right away—despite having just taken vigorous part in a huge group lunch with a posse of national restaurant critics. We were there at the behest of Alison Cook, the critic for the Houston Chronicle, who had regaled us for years with tales of Irma’s and of Irma. We immediately saw why. Galvan, who has the carriage of a dancer, waited on us, wearing her usual sweatshirt and boldly patterned tights (and, that day, combat boots). She bears plates over her head, and she stretches her arms out theatrically to get the attention of a whole table and signal waitresses to bring more of her signature lemonade (a tropical-fruit punch tasting more of strawberry, orange, and papaya than of lemon)—gestures perhaps acquired over a lifetime of compensating for low stature. Dishes arrive in a flash after she commands her small fleet of cooks to produce them. “She orders me around, too,” Alison Cook, a staunch loyalist from the beginning, admitted.

I kept asking for more napkin-lined baskets of handmade corn tortillas, made every morning and warmed to order (they are impossible to find in Boston, where I live, and hard enough to find even in Houston), which make every enchilada noteworthy. Most popular are tortillas rolled around spinach sauteed with garlic so quickly that the leaves, shiny with olive oil, are barely wilted. They come in a fresh tomatillo sauce, yellow-green and lightly acidic and oniony, and topped with melted jalapeño jack cheese or mozzarella.

Galvan makes fresh flour tortillas, too, one of several Tex-Mex staples she did not grow up eating (“I called them gringo tortillas”) but has mastered anyway—like salsa and chips, which she never saw in a Mexican home or restaurant. Now salsa and chips come to the table, and both are predictably fresh: quick-fried chips from her own homemade tortillas, with bright-flavored salsa made daily. The guacamole, too, is made by hand, and meticulously; it draws people from all over Houston.

As in all the best home cooking, small details make the dish—and in the best Mexican cooking, those require painstaking labor. For the tamale filling, cubed pork is simmered with whole heads of garlic and onions; the meat is hand-chopped and warmed with a “salsa”—really a thick paste of ancho (dried poblanos) and cascabel chiles, reconstituted and slowly sauteed with garlic and onions—until the moderate heat of the chiles permeates the meat. The masa, or white-cornmeal paste that goes into corn-husk wrappers along with the meat, is made with the garlicky stock from boiling the pork and softened with the secret ingredient too few Mexican cooks dare use but more of them should: manteca. “You don’t want to hear” what she uses, Galvan told me. Of course I did, and was extremely glad to hear the answer, “pure lard”—most cooks use insipid shortening. The texture is pillowy, the flavor deep and subtle.

We visited on a Thursday, the one day Irma’s offers homemade tres leches cake, which has recently become something of an obsession for sweets lovers, a group of which I am a proud member. For her recipe for “three milks,” which many jealous bakers would refuse to reveal, Galvan uses whole, Carnation evaporated, and Lechera-brand condensed milks. The wet, rich goodness comes from an overnight soaking of homemade white sponge cake with a mixture of the milks, and from an icing of cajeta, the caramelized milk that has become popular as dulce de leche, mixed with honey, cinnamon, and pecans. It sounds rich, and is, but tastes as airy as the whipped cream on top. That was sprayed from a can. It didn’t stop me from ordering a second portion.

I told Cook after lunch that I couldn’t imagine preferring another restaurant (and I did manage to sample a number of the others she recommended in town). She replied that Irma’s is the place she wishes she could go whenever she eats out, instead of a new restaurant—that place every food critic keeps in the back of her or his mind. If I lived in Houston, it would be mine too.