Mama Irma: Food from the heart 

click to enlarge Mama Irma's Hilda Cano - MARK LEE

I’ve long felt that the greatest art, in order to truly succeed, has to communicate on something other than a merely cerebral level. There needs to be a more primitive connection between artist and audience that forges a direct link to the subconscious and awakens something visceral within; it may be impossible to quantify, but we all know it when we feel it. I find this to be true also with food and drink. In simplistic terms, it’s the difference between the real and the phony; the food that comes from the heart and food that comes from a recipe book, however technically well-executed it may be.

Mama Irma’s food, make no mistake about it, comes straight from the heart. This is some of the greatest tasting food I’ve eaten in a while, and the presentation isn’t too shabby either. There’s a simplicity and focus that is frankly enviable. I can think of dozens of chefs who could take a lesson or two from Hilda Cano, the intense and charming owner who learned to cook from her mother, the titular Mama Irma.

The interior of this tiny restaurant is simply but colorfully decorated in gold and burgundy; the atmosphere, comfortable and inviting. On a recent visit, our sever was effusively friendly and extremely helpful, explaining dishes and techniques and offering appropriate suggestions. Her knowledge and delivery was a perfect fit for the ambience and style of food, lending an extra layer of enjoyment to an already enjoyable experience.

As for the food, I cannot recommend highly enough the dishes we sampled. For starters, we tried the Causa Rellena ($6.00), a hemispherical dome of rich mashed potato stuffed with a salad of vegetables (tuna and chicken are also available). Perfectly seasoned, this was one of those dishes you just have to finish, even though there’s more to come. A plate of deep-fried yucca ($4.50) with a mild yellow pepper dipping sauce would make a great pub appetizer. Crisp on the outside and fluffy within, these fried treats cry out for beer.

Then came the brightest star of the day: a truly remarkable ceviche ($13.25) composed of squid, shrimp and tilapia. A touch spicy and seasoned with just a few flakes of cilantro and thin slices of marinated onion on a bed of a lightly dressed slaw, this was a meal itself, and absolutely irresistible. The tilapia, not a fish I had ever envisaged in ceviche, was firm and exquisitely textured. Just thinking about this dish makes me want to drive downtown right now and order a double serving; it’s that good.

Then there was the Tacu Tacu Relleno ($9.75), a savory cake of refried beans stuffed with strips of sautéed beef and red pepper, again perfectly seasoned and impossible to abandon. The Aji de Gallina ($8.50), rice with saffron-scented chicken and walnuts in a subtly spiced sauce, was so delicious that it would be improper to print the adjectives my wife used to describe it.

If you have room, try all the desserts: they are home-made and quite delectable.

click to enlarge Mama Irma's ceviche - MARK LEE

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