Sometimes a restaurant’s story is that of a career business owner or a renowned chef. But sometimes, a restaurant’s genesis is simple home cooking — done with love. Irma’s café is the latter, and owner Irma Avelar is as authentic a home cook as you could find. Read on to learn more about Irma’s Cafe, a cozy spot located at 279 Central Avenue in Jersey City.
“It’s homemade,” said Avelar, “so you can come to try some homemade food. Come to Irma’s Café.”
Avelar, 50, isn’t a professional chef; she is a mother of five and cooks as much as you would imagine one cooks for five children: a lot.
An active member of her church community, Avelar takes part in all the church’s events. Like most things, the church events revolve around food, and so Avelar had to learn quickly. She dug deep into her mother and grandmother’s cooking, as well as YouTube.
Her pupusas and tamales quickly became the talk of the community, as well as her household. People wanted to place orders with her directly for her tamales and pupusas. This of course gave Avelar a bright idea: her own restaurant.
Avelar began looking for a location to sell tamales. She found one, and in early 2020, she started readying for a grand opening in March. As with all plans for the year, the opening became unfeasible due to the pandemic.
The grand opening was scheduled for September, but only three days before opening, Avelar received word that the restaurant’s ceiling fell. A bizarre, albeit brief setback, the restaurant opened to great acclaim a week later after repairs were completed.
“When we were in quarantine,” said Avelar, “I’m trying in my house making tacos de birria, tacos carnitas, “I cook a lot in my house because I don’t know exactly what I’m going to sell in the restaurant.”
Avelar originally only prepared for pupusas and tamales, the dishes she made for the church, but decided to broaden her horizons to include classic Mexican cuisine. Through the pandemic, she was hard at work crafting new recipes at home, and sharing her results.
“Every time I cook in my house,” said Avelar, “I post it on Facebook.”
Avelar has always cooked for her kids, but they were a tough audience at times. It was their critiques, Avelar said, that pushed her to step up her game.
Adjusting to COVID-19
With plans for Avelar’s original March 2020 opening scrapped, a new vision for Irma’s Café was needed. Where once Avelar had wanted 10 tables, she instead ended up with only two.
If Avelar wanted to hit the ground running when she was finally able to open, she would have to adapt quickly to the new COVID-era regulations and restrictions. She did wonder if she made a mistake, even doubting herself, but what came next pleasantly surprised her.
“I opened Saturday,” said Avelar. “Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, the restaurant was full, and I was surprised the first three days.”
Despite the COVID restrictions, Avelar’s grand opening of Irma’s Café turned out to be quite a success. Even her friends who opened their own restaurants told her not to expect much from the first day, but they too were shocked at Avelar’s turnout.
Stay up to date with Irma’s Cafe through the eatery’s Instagram page.