Food from Adversity: Irma’s of Houston

Irma's. There is a small parking lot, with an attendant, but street parking is all around.

Irma’s. There is a small parking lot, with an attendant, but street parking is all around.

A few weeks ago, I was treated to my first lunch at Irma’s in downtown Houston. There is a story here, more than just the excellent food and warm atmosphere. First let me tell you about the place, and then let me tell you about Irma.

I had heard of Irma’s as being a fantastic Mexican restaurant, albeit one that is closed at night and on weekends. It’s been serving home-made style Tex-Mex/taqueria food for over 20 years. It’s a comfortable, homey place, with excellent food and drinks. There is no menu. Irma, or one of her employees, will seat you and then rattle off what they cooked that day.

Tamales and Beans

Tamales and Beans

“What do you want? Today we got tamales, enchiladas, we got tacos.” I asked for enchiladas.

“What kind do you want? Today I got spinach, chicken, pork”.  So I asked her to bring me whatever she thought was the best enchilada. And a margarita. It was Friday and I wasn’t going back to the office.

margarita with mangoThe first thing she brought, besides the ubiquitous chips and salsa, was a plate of “starters”, which consisted a large tamale and a bowl of meaty borracho beans. After this, I was completely full! Her margaritas are excellent, complete with little chunks of fresh mango, adding color and flavor to a traditional style drink. In order to really evaluate it properly, we naturally had to order a second one. You know, for science.

My enchiladas were likewise wonderful. Irma delivered up a sampler. I’m not sure what each one contained, but I had flavors of spinach, pork, juicy chicken. She included stewed vegetables and different sauces on each roll. I hated to leave some of the food, but not being near a refrigerator for several hours, I had to walk away.

A trio of homemade enchiladas

A trio of homemade enchiladas

The decor is eclectic, as if Irma had been collecting odds and ends over the years, and putting it all into the restaurant. Which is exactly what she has done. And this is where Irma’s story comes in. I was researching the history of the place, and confirming that another downtown restaurant, called Irma’s Southwest Grill, was a related entity. That’s when I found her story.

The restaurant is full of memorabilia from her customers

The restaurant is full of memorabilia from her customers

In 1981, Irma’s husband Louis, having just earned his doctorate in pharmacology and biology from Baylor Medical, was robbed and murdered after leaving a club. She was left with four children, no college education, and no life insurance. She struggled to make ends meet, but remembered a long-ago dream of hers to someday have a restaurant. Irma’s mother, like Irma, had raised four children alone and poor, and Irma had learned her skills of making delicious food from meager supplies.  She eventually opened a restaurant in the run-down warehouse part of downtown, but the quality of her food and her networking skills led city workers, politicians, the well-known and the workers, to her door.


She’s been a savvy businesswoman. She owns other real estate downtown. One of her sons owns Irma’s Southwest Grill, two work in her restaurant, and one is in dental school. She bought houses for each of them, and she serves on civic organizations, museums boards, and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. She’s won the James Beard Foundation America’s Classic award, as well as a national award from State Farm Insurance presented to women who’ve rebuilt their lives after suddenly losing their husbands.

I have a great deal of admiration for people who can take a tragedy and hardship and make something for themselves and their families, against the odds. I respected her food, and now I respect the woman.

I think she doesn't clear five feet!

My friend Eric with Irma. I think she doesn’t clear five feet!


Categories: Family, Food, Women

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. That made me so hungry. Such an inspiring story, too.

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