Sometimes Tucson offers up something that is such a unique hybrid it simply couldn't exist anywhere else. Welcome to Irene's. Whether it's the wood smoke drifting from their on-the-sidewalk barbecue or the rich smell of oil frying when you walk in the door, Irene's signals to you that it's OK to let your hair down. If you're lucky, either one of the dynamic duo, Irene Echeandia or Charlie Bass, will greet you. Depending on how well they know you depends on the greeting you will receive, and if you become a loyal patron, you'll be deeply embraced. Surely this is a stature to actively cultivate. There aren't that many seats available at Irene's and you'll want to be sure that one of them is yours.
It's hard to say exactly what makes Irene's so special. Perhaps it's because the restaurant embraces the fact that it is its own anomaly. Like the owner, Irene, born in Lima and raised in Jersey, the spirit of the restaurant is all about celebrating where you are and enjoying who you're with. Whether you're watching couples swirl in a slow and lazy tango or salsa in the bar, kicking back at one of the tables in the dining room watching a steady stream of food emerge from the tiny kitchen, or taking in a waft of heady wood smoke, you'll find yourself glad you're exactly where you are.
True, the food draws an adoring crowd. I find the food at Irene's to be about comfort: it is simple, real and reminds me of the food found at family gatherings. Clearly there are signature items, but all of it is made from a repertoire embedded in memory. These are dishes that have been well loved and are offered up with the quiet confidence that they will continue to be loved.
We certainly admired the purple potatoes infused with fresh lime and topped with albacore tuna. It's not hard to see why people who love purple potatoes are so passionate about them: the vivid deep purple is both forbidding and compelling. A violent color not often found in nature, a purple potato is kind of a dare. Here, purple potatoes are whipped with lime juice until creamy, then chilled. Scooped onto the plate, they are topped with a light tuna salad topping. This is both perverse to look at and absolutely delicious. Cool and satisfying, rich and creamy, the classic marriage of potato and tuna flavors work together and are a delightful entrance into Irene's menu.
The heavy aromas of cooking oil and wood smoke hang in the air. Give into your senses and be sure to try the fried plantains. Unable to choose between the sweet yam fries or fried plantains with chili sauce, we ordered both. What ensued was a debate as to which dish was the better of the two. Both items rapidly disappeared as the debate raged on. What we finally agreed upon was that someone in the kitchen has a divine relationship with the deep fryer. The plantains were dense and fried until crispy; the Aji sauce served as a side condiment was incendiary in just the right way. The fried yams were delightful: sweet, crispy and squirted with lime.
Unsure of where to turn next, we asked our server. On this particular evening, a family emergency had left the crew short handed, and we were fortunate enough to have one of Irene and Charlie's charming sons as a waiter. Even though the restaurant was filled to capacity, our server remained attentive and steered us confidently with a shy smile and his best efforts. This wasn't the most well coordinated meal I've ever had, yet it was served with such graciousness and good intent that as the evening tumbled on, and dishes arrived one at a time, we felt truly as if we had been guests at a riotous dinner party. From the roar of laughter and good cheer in the dining room, it felt as if most of the patrons agreed. We felt lucky just to be there.
At our young server's recommendation, we tried the Aji de Gallina, a classic Peruvian dish. Vibrantly yellow and cooked until the substance of a thick curry, the mellow walnut flavor, shredded chicken and chopped hardboiled egg make for a simple and sustaining dish. Served with rice, this is a filling plate.
The locro provides a light vegetarian option. A light sauté of banana squash, tomato and onion is served with rice and beans, fried plantains and homemade bread. Seasoned with a bit of lime, this dish is decidedly mild and provides a simple option for one who might be overwhelmed with the zestier items on the menu.
Someone at the table should order at least one grilled item. Grilled items at Irene's involve one of the crew heading out to the sidewalk to grill your order. Whether you request grilled corn or salmon, or whatever item might be offered that evening, your food will be carried through the dining room and placed out on the outdoor grill. This gives the whole dining room an opportunity to catch a lovely waft of wood smoke, and there is a certain charm about having your food cooked to order outside in the middle of downtown Tucson.
Don't miss the Perna con yucca. While it's hard to pick just one favorite item, this would be one of the favored recommendations. A succulent roasted pork tenderloin basted in a tangy, citrus sauce is served on a bed of caramelized purple cabbage. Served with some of the world's best crisped yucca and a side of Aji dipping sauce, this is a plate of elemental flavors and textures that lets you know for those few glorious moments you are at the center of the universe.
This is the simple and restorative charm that Irene's offers up in abundance: for the time you are there as her guest, you enter into a closely knit world of family, food and fun. No matter that you are a paying guest, this is a family that you'll want to embrace as your own.