100 Austin Burgers: Irene’s
Hours: 11am-2am daily; burger available only on Fridays; coffee and snack bar 7am-2am daily.
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 08.11.16
Agility defines the ELM Restaurant Group, with a lineup that includes the reliable 24 Diner, the Dirty Sixth refuge of Easy Tiger, the dress-up red sauce charms of Italic and now the self-conscious roadhouse diner élan of Irene’s, which opened in May. With winky retro graphics, Blue Plate specials, a “Steak & Whiskey” dinner and pimento cheese, Irene’s shoots for a Southern diner aesthetic. Its stylistic shotgun blast covers a walkup coffee bar, an ivy-covered wall with “Irene’s” in neon, a row of airliner windows (to evoke airplane food?) and a sprawling covered patio that creates a real indoor/outdoor feel, reinforced by food in paper boats.
► The Friday Burger: In the diner tradition, Irene’s puts up a Blue Plate special on the weekdays. Homey favorites like pot pie on Mondays, King Ranch Chicken on Tuesdays, leading up to Friday, when it’s time for a double cheeseburger. It’s the only day to get a burger at Irene’s, and they dress it with a sweet sautée of peppers and onions and two slices of melted white cheddar on a perfect milk bun from master baker David Norman at Easy Tiger. I’d like to say it’s worth waiting for Friday, but on my Friday, both patties came crunchy black on the outside and gray to the core. Overcooked just shy of burnt, with equally overworked bacon criss-crossing the top, like an “X” kicking the duct-taped mime off “America’s Got Talent.” When you’ve got one day a week to get it right, execution counts. ($15 with a side)
► On the side: Run to the comfort of macaroni and cheese for consolation. The good kind, with shells. It’s fine in its little plastic cup beside the burger, but I’d be reluctant to pay the $4 it commands as a separate side. And I’ll recommend against “smoky cucumber slaw,” which failed to represent strongly any of those three words. But I’ll lay odds you’ve never seen pimento cheese the way Irene’s does it, whipped like spray cheese into a little Mason jar. The texture’s unfamiliar, but the flavor’s a day on the porch with a sleeve of saltines ($6).
► More sandwiches: Don’t let the “ground beef” in its bio lead you down the burger path toward the “Made Wright” ($8). It’s a Sloppy Joe, except Sloppy went missing and left Joe behind with nothing but mustard and pickles. The steak sandwich gets it right, with banners of grilled sirloin, horseradish cream, peppers and onions on an Easy Tiger hoagie roll wearing a Yankees hat and a wifebeater ($12).
► Wash it down: With bars inside and out, Irene’s pours punch, whiskey shots, 20 draft beers — PBR to Guinness — and cocktails with names like Keith Richards, Lemmy and Jean Genie. The Waterloo Sunset is a straightforward margarita for $8. The Friend of the Devil — tequila, Zing Zang, Dos Equis, a blistered pepper — can’t decide whether it’s a michelada or a Bloody Maria, and indecision makes a cocktail without conviction ($8).
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(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)