100 Favorite Dishes

100 Favorite Dishes 2013: No. 85, Pork Tamales at Irma's

This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a list of the 100 dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of her personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston food-scape. It's a list to drool over.

In my hometown, Corpus Christi, tamales are a big deal. Everyone has a neighbor or a friend who makes the best in town, everyone has a favorite hole-in-the-wall spot on the West Side to buy masa, and everyone has a favorite style of the Mexican staple.

Even though we have no Mexican or deep-rooted Texan heritage, my family has always loved tamales, and we recently started taking part in the tradition of eating them on Christmas Eve. My mother, my aunt and I even made our own one year, using chicken and poblano peppers and duck meat and bing cherries. I must admit, they were delicious.

I often struggle to find tamales that live up to my high expectations, but I still order them everywhere I go as a means of testing a restaurant.

Irma's, you passed with flying colors.

Irma's, on Chenevert, is a giant, labyrinthine building packed with every tchotchke your grandmother ever owned, still owns or hoped to own. Once, I even discovered a live canary in a cage tucked away in a corner behind a massive throne made from a single door. It's a quirky place that has never had a menu but continues to delight diners with the Tex-Mex comfort food of founder Irma Galvan.

On a recent trip to Irma's, I ordered the tamales, of course, just to see how the James Beard Award-winning restaurant handled the traditional treat. They come stuffed with juicy shredded pork marinated in a slightly spicy chili powder, the corn masa tenderly surrounding the ingredients. The two tamales are topped with a thin chile con carne sauce, melted jack cheese and a delicate sprinkling of bright purple cabbage and zingy cilantro.

There are two things I look for when I judge tamales, and Irma's tamales have both of them: a good meat-to-masa ratio, and masa that has not been dried out by over-steaming. These tamales are soft and moist (but certainly not runny) and every bite features just the right amount of meat to enhance the flavor of the corn-based masa. They're close to perfect.

Tamales have been around since the time of the ancient Aztecs and Mayas in Mesoamerica, when they were used as portable meals for armies and hunters. Irma's tamales smothered in chile sauce are not quite as portable as the corn husk- or banana leaf-wrapped tamales that one might open up like a present at the dinner table, but I'd take them anywhere. Messy sauce and all.

The list so far: No. 100: Bangkok Fries at Boheme No. 99: Almond Croissant at Phoenicia No. 98: Bulgogi Tacos with Kimchi at Chi'Lantro No. 97: Soft Pretzel from Mongoose Versus Cobra No. 96: Chicken and Waffles at Adair Kitchen No. 95: Sweet Potato Gnocchi at Brooklyn Athletic Club No. 94: Foie Gras Mac & Cheese at BRC Gastropub No. 93: Vuelve a la Vida Soup at Connie's Seafood No. 92: Homeroom at Bernie's Burger Bus No. 91: Lobster Cake Benedict at Sorrel Urban Bistro No. 90: Uncle Daryl's Cake at The Chocolate Bar No. 89: Porchetta e Fagioli at Giacomo's Cibo e Vino No. 88: Sesame Soft Balls at Golden Dim Sum No. 87: Crab Daddy Bao at Fat Bao No. 86: Ham, Egg & Cheese Crepe at Melange Creperie

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Kaitlin Steinberg