Going Global At a Texas DinerBy: The Local Palate
The welcoming vibe at Irene’s in Austin, Texas, isn’t by chance—it’s by legacy. Irene herself, the grandmother of one of the restaurant’s owners, was a smoking, drinking, gambling, Australian woman who relocated to Brooklyn and always had a drink ready for guests.
“That was the idea of Irene’s,” says chef-owner Andrew Curren. “It’s a feeling, it’s a vibe, it’s an acceptance of everyone who walks through the door.” That drive for hospitality is a hallmark of the American diner. But to compete in today’s locally driven, Instagram-centric food world, even classic Americana has to go above and beyond.
Enter the modern global diner. This approach fuses everyone-knows-your-name service with multicultural flavors and fresh takes on menu staples. “When creating our menu, it had to be fun and playful, but also approachable,” Curren says of his penchant for nostalgia-evoking dishes. Curren came to Austin by way of New York. He graduated valedictorian from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and worked for some of the city’s top names, like Floyd Cardoz and Jonathan Waxman.
While the menu at Irene’s changes frequently, a few key dishes have been on since day one. Among them, the pimento cheese and french onion dip. “They represent the old-school nostalgia,” Curren says.
There’s also the chicken and avocado sandwich, a play on the classic Mexican torta with smoky and spicy braised chicken tinga, smashed black beans, and spicy cabbage slaw. There’s the sort of plates that get to Irene’s culturally diverse vibe: A bar snack of potato and sausage croquettes in the style of Spanish tapas, pozole that “gives a nod to our friends south of the border,” and pastor tacos with housemade tortillas. They illustrate the unusual step for a self-described “small American dive bar.” They’re inspired by three months Curren spent in Oaxaca as he finished high school. “It really opened my eyes to other cultures and learning about a culture through food.”
And then, there’s the rotating roster of diner classics, like a turkey-pastrami reuben (here with a kimchi-inspired sauerkraut). The fried chicken sandwich, Curren says, may seem basic, but it’s representative of what’s going on today. “It’s all about execution.” That starts with super-thick, smoky bacon and a housemade ranch dressing spiked with a little jalapeño. “It’s food at its most simple level, but each ingredient comes together.”
A slider burger from Ranger Cattle beef, raised in East Austin, is topped with housemade kimchi made from local vegetables—Curren rotates the ingredients based on what’s in season. It takes at least a week to ferment the combination of greens—mustard greens, napa cabbage, kale, or whatever farmers have available—and firm vegetables like carrot or daikon. The result is finely chopped for a play on pickle relish.
A true diner meal can’t conclude without a slice of some decadent dessert and at Irene’s, that can only mean one thing: strawberry cake. “It’s what my mom made for my birthday every year,” Curren says of the pink confection that’s developed a hardcore fanbase among Austinites. His wife, Irene’s pastry chef Mary Catherine, elevated the original Jell-O powder and boxed cake mix concoction to make a technique-driven dessert with high-quality ingredients (and no preservatives).