At first glance, the new Irma's Southwest Grill couldn't look more different from the original Irma's over on Chenevert. No Siamese-twinned franchise here: While the original Irma's is as funky and crowded as a carnival midway, "Irma's Dos" is a city slicker. Here Irma Galvan's oldest boy, Louis Galvan, and co-owner Bruce Williams preside over a spacious, high-ceilinged dining room that seats 100 customers with plenty of elbow room. There's a long, sleek bar. And the sophisticated deep, dark tones are offset by generous windows onto the sidewalk, where someday shaded bistro seating will be available. Why, it's even fully air-conditioned!
"My mom only agreed to let us use her name on the restaurant after she saw the place, how nice it looks, you know?" says Galvan proudly. "Once she saw it, she fell in love with it. Now I can hardly keep her out of here." As a matter of fact, Galvan says, his mama ate the official first meal at Irma's Southwest.
A second, longer look reveals the similarities beneath the two places' skins. The same shirt-sleeved city employees, oil men and politicos pack the tables at lunchtime, although admittedly after a much shorter wait. "You know, I think a lot of our customers are coming from my mom's place," Galvan confides. It sure does look that way. He has even hired Irma's original cooks. "I didn't hire them away from her or anything," he assures me. "These are the people who worked for her years ago, when she first opened."
Just like his mom, Galvan eschews printed menus. Waiters patiently recite the four specials of the day, and only fleetingly refer to the "regular stuff" like chili rellenos, spinach enchiladas, beef fajitas and chicken flautas. They know that you know those original Irma's favorites by heart. These waiters are dressed up in collared shirts and neatly pressed khaki slacks, though, instead of shorts and tees. And, oh joy, there's Irma's legendary lemonade in tall, icy glasses, chock-full of the trademark fresh fruit that colors it rosy pink. Yep, free refills here, too.
I felt very comfortable in the new Irma's, cooler and less claustrophobic. (And I didn't miss those sticker burrs that lurk in the Chenevert sidewalk weeds, waiting to shred my pantyhose.) I was reassured by the reappearance of that smoky, vivid-orange hot sauce with the tortilla chips. I was quite pleased with the food, both the familiar Tex-Mex entrées and the new ones. Galvan refers to the entrées unique to Irma's Southwest as "Frank's dishes," in honor of his executive chef, Frank Leal, formerly of Tasca.
But wait a minute: Are the prices at Irma's Southwest actually lower than the mother-ship restaurant's? "Oh, yes, that's right," confirms Galvan. "It's part of our plan to offer the entrées at a slightly lower price than my mom's." Whoa, baby! "But that's okay with her," he says. "We have a lower overhead in this building than she does over there, not so many expensive lawyers over here."
For example, a new dish from Frank's side of the menu, a whole butterflied and pan-fried rainbow trout, was offered for only $9.95. Its skin was buttery and crisp, its flesh white and flaky, lightly tinted reddish here and there with a smoky chipotle sauce. "Frank really likes chipotle in just about all his dishes," explains Galvan. "He even uses a little in his Southwest mashed potatoes, along with poblano peppers and garlic." The trout was laid across a heaping mound of softly sautéed spinach leaves alongside a dinner salad, a grouping of sautéed squashes and a slice of French bread. It's a very full plate. I didn't even discover the spinach, in fact, until after I'd demolished the trout.
"Frank's entrées are selling like wild," says Galvan. "And that's how we're going to distinguish ourselves from my mother's business. Last week he came up with some shrimp tostadas, and they just flew out the door. We'll always keep the Tex-Mex don't worry but Frank's stuff is how we're having fun."
The only one of Leal's offerings I've tried that didn't enchant me was the baby back ribs and sausage ($9.95). It makes sense to branch out into barbecue, I suppose; people who like Tex-Mex are usually 'cue aficionados too. What doesn't make sense is not smoking the ribs. These were wet-braised, is my guess, with a thick, too-tomatoey sauce ladled across the rack like an afterthought. The meat was tender, all right, falling off the bones and nicely trimmed of fat, but the net effect was disappointingly closer to pot roast than barbecue. Hidden under the rack of ribs I'm learning to poke around an Irma's plate like a truffle-hunter was a mound of creamy potato salad; it was good, but nothing to write home about, warmed way past room temperature by the overhanging ribs.
With the desserts, however, the menu made a faultless comeback. I'd lost track of which dishes were whose by this time, so I can't say if it was Irma's or Frank's banana pudding ($2.75) that I liked so much. I expected a gooey nursery dish and instead got a light-textured, sophisticated interpretation, fully flavored with ripe bananas and stuck with vanilla wafers that were still crisp. The caramel-topped flan ($3.25) I'll bet that's Irma's recipe was as appealingly dense as the banana pudding was fluffy. "Why do Texans like their flan so darn condensed?" wondered my dining companion. "Because it's so good that way," I explained, rudely digging my spoon into his dish.
Galvan opened his doors in May, and so far he's taking it slow and easy with lunch-only service from 11 to 3. "Originally I offered breakfast, too, because we make the best breakfast tacos in town," he told me. "But we sold too many. It was wearing us out, putting together 300 tacos every morning then turning around to serve lunch." Tacos too popular? Everyone should have such problems. Now Irma's Southwest is single-mindedly back on the lunch track, with early-evening service only for private parties and corporate happy hours.
Galvan expects to peg his expansion plans on the opening of Enron Field. "We'll definitely have the sidewalk tables out there on game nights," says Galvan, chuckling in anticipation. "And maybe a grill out there, too, where people can take away hot dogs and tacos. Or a cheese enchilada," he adds excitedly. "You gotta have one of those before a baseball game."
Oh, baby, I can't wait.
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