America's Classics: Chris Shepherd on Irma’s Restaurant in HoustonJBF Editors
February 29, 2016
How did an out-of-the-way breakfast and lunch spot with no set menu become such a beloved Houston institution? At Irma’s, explains JBF Award–winning chef Chris Shepherd, you can’t always get what you want—and that’s a good thing. He tells us what makes Irma’s so unique and how the eatery has inspired his own cooking at Underbelly.
First of all it's in a really odd place. It’s kind of in the southeast part of downtown, where there really isn't anything: it’s courthouses, courthouses, the stadium, and Irma’s. It's been there forever and it's kind of quirky and beautiful. It’s this oasis, festive and light-filled.
You go in and there’s no menu. Being in this business, I think that’s one of the coolest things: she makes what she wants to make. That's pretty significant. We change our menu every day, but there are still a couple of things that are always on there. But Irma does her thing. The only thing you always get is the lemonade, which really isn't lemonade. Yeah, there's lemon in there, but how much, I'm not sure. It's all fruit juices; it can have orange juice and lemon juice, it's got grapes in it, she's probably got a puree of watermelon going in there. It's one of those things—you've got to try it. A lemonade has to hit the table. If that's the one thing she's going to do every day? You gotta have it.
They start rambling off the dishes and you've got to pay attention, it's like twelve things. And then they can mix and match—you can build your own combo. Her flautas are awesome, just crispy and light and delicious. The enchiladas have a good depth of flavor. The mole is on point. And there's the carne asada: great flavor, depth, richness, spice level. It’s all served with rice, beans, tortillas; the classics. I really love a good chicken enchilada, and then if they could put some mole next to it and then a little pile of carne asada, and the rice and beans—I’m in heaven. Give me a couple of jalapeños on the side and we're in.
You’ve got to be open-minded and just ready for the experience because that's what it is: it’s an experience, it’s not just going out to lunch. You can eat that stuff all over Houston—it's everywhere. But the idea that I'm going to walk in and not know if I'm going to get a particular dish or not is even more exciting to me than anything else. It broadens your horizons, it forces you to get outside of your own box, which I think is good in dining these days. Irma’s an innovator around here. Not too many places really do that. They pick up the phone and they know what's on the menu and they order product to fit the menu. It's the same philosophy that we have at Underbelly: What did our farmers bring us? Where are we going to go with it? If she can do it, we can do it.
—Chris Shepherd, JBF Award Winner
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