By Rachel Coleman
At 4:30 a.m., the streets of Liberal are wrapped in purple shadow, houses dark and traffic thin: folks are still asleep.
But at Irma’s Mexican Cafe, 6 E. Hickory, the lights are on.
A rhythmic thump sounds throughout the small kitchen as employee Hermelinda Grajela starts in on the daily batch of 200-plus tortillas she rolls out and cooks on the hot griddle. Owner Mario Loredo measures beans, stirs a pot of shredded steak and sets up for the morning’s first rush.
“We have to be ready to go by 5,” he says. “Most of my business starts early.” Soon the phone rings, and Loredo copies the first of the day’s orders.
As the sky lightens to a thin lavender, mud-spattered trucks pull up in front of the tiny storefront. Oil field workers stride to the pick-up window, pausing to select soda from a cooler to the right. They leave just moments later, carrying brown paper lunch bags stuffed with foil-wrapped burritos.
“These guys are out and about at early hours,” Loredo says. “Sometimes they’re working so far out in the country they can’t get lunch. So they come here ahead of time.” The first rush can be “a madhouse,” he says.
As the morning wears on, a steady stream of customers stops at Irma’s en route to work.
“For being in this little bitty place, we’ve become established as the place for all kinds of people to get breakfast and lunch,” Loredo said. “Electric and gas company guys, shift workers from the hospital and the packing plant, city and county employees, the people at the court house. Doctors, lawyers, police officers. We open our doors for everybody.”
Some of the customers order in English, some in Spanish. Loredo relishes the cultural mix.
“That’s what I wanted to achieve,” he said. “I wanted Irma’s to be for everybody.”
When Loredo and his wife Mayra moved to Liberal from his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, he was ready to leave the business world where he’d worked in sales. Loredo’s father had already relocated to Liberal from Texas and urged him to follow.
Loredo had always been fond of cooking, he said, having picked it up from his grandmother who worked in restaurants all her life. The restaurant is named in her honor.
“My dad actually opened the place up and ran it for a year, and now I’ve been doing it for three years,” Loredo said. “It took a while [for me] to get used to the change, from business casual to cooking every day, but now I wouldn’t trade what I’m doing for anything.”
At Irma’s, the emphasis is on authentic, healthy food made with fresh ingredients. Loredo pays close attention to what his customers like, and made a point of mastering special sauces favored by the immigrants from Chihuahua, Mexico.
“Me, I like the Tex-Mex cooking, where you don’t have a lot of sauce and you use the yellow cheese,” he said, “but there are a lot of people who like the red chile and green chile sauce so I learned to cook that. When people are hungry for a particular food, they can come here and get that.”
Irma’s menu features 15 types of burritos for about $2 each, from egg and chorizo to potato-jalapeno to chile rellenos, shredded steak or hamburger. Customers can also add extra ingredients, or select platters to go, and Loredo periodically cooks up daily specials.
With three small tables in the front area, the cafe is set up for carry-out rather than dining in. Loredo said customers have suggested he open a family dining establishment, but he’s not ready to make that jump.
“Once you go into something like that, you get more people working for you, and not everybody’s going to do things the same,” he said. “I’d rather not have anybody else cooking, because there’s a certain way I’ve established the business, and I don’t want to compromise it.”
Accordingly, Loredo shuns prepared foods, including canned tomato sauce. His tortilla maker is “an old pro,” he says. He trims his meat to keep it lean, slow-cooking the brisket and steak until it’s tender. The sauces and beans are always home-cooked.
“If you get too big, it’s just commercial and the food changes,” he said. “That defeats the whole purpose.”
That’s why Loredo continues to rise early and head to the store, even on days he’d rather get a little extra sleep.
“Sometimes I hate to do it,” he said, noting that he, his wife and children recently welcomed a newborn son to the family. “But then I think about my regular customers who call in orders on their way to work. These are people I’ve seen a hundred times. I think, ‘They’re depending on you.’ So I say, ‘well, I’ve got to get up.’”
When he hands the orders over, Loredo said, and sees people start the workday, or when customers come back to say they enjoyed the food, “that’s the main thing. It makes me feel good inside.”