Irene’s Mexican barbecue brings the taste and feel of Texas to COMO.
After several months of trying it on for size, I decided pescetarianism wasn’t quite suited well for me while at a barbeque joint in the heart of Texas.
My family insisted on going to the restaurant because, after all, we were in Texas. Who could blame ‘em? The feel of the restaurant was like a cafeteria: big metal platters lined with brown paper on rectangular trays, on which the ladies behind the counter placed each new appetizing delight when it brought a twinkle to my eye.
I really didn’t know what to think of it. The place was crowded, full of commotion … and I was so hungry.
Out of curiosity and urging from the group, I took a bite of the brisket. Just like the state, it was huge. Bursts of flavor took over. It was meaty yet tender, melting in the mouth. I immediately decided maybe the vegetarian and seafood lifestyle alone wasn’t as cut out for me as previously thought.
It’s been a while since I’ve been back to the Lone Star State, but food wise, I’m not far away. After taking a bite of the beef torta at the newly opened Mexican barbeque restaurant, Irene’s, I was right back in that moment. Living vividly, the meat once again tender, jalapenos and a house mayo falling off onto the metal tray, I was at a Texas restaurant.
Big spice, big flavor, and even a big, live fire cooking the orders up—but this time in Columbia, Missouri, at 711 N. College Ave., in the Arcade District.
Irene’s feels, tastes, and reminisces of Austin while being more than 700 miles away from the Texas capital.
“It’s a thing I’ve even gotten in the past few weeks we’ve been open,” Berrick Wahby, a partner in the restaurant’s operations, explains, “where people have said it feels like Dallas and Austin when you’re in here. It has that off-canteen vibe. It’s modern and trendy, but it’s also casual, fun, and fast.”
Business partners and owners, Tim Eisenhauer and Josh Smith, made an effort for this atmosphere to come alive. Eisenhauer made several trips visiting family to the southern area prior to the inception of the central-Missouri restaurant.
A fondness built, leading to him inviting Smith to come along for a food festival around the admired spot. The pair tried different restaurants and ideas began to surface for the not-yet-discovered gem.
Risk it to get the biscuit
The success coming to the newly opened brick-and-mortar is no shock. This wasn’t any of the team’s first rodeo when it came to the culinary scene. All of the minds behind the craft have a diverse restaurant experience with a variety of Missouri restaurants under their belts.
Eisenhauer reminisces, “I wanted to open a restaurant. I remember meeting my future in-laws for the first time, and they’re asking me about myself. And I’m like, ‘I want to have my own restaurant.’… I’d never had a kitchen job before… After that, I started working.”
But the one experience that ended up uniting the crew sits in between Providence Road and Garth Avenue. Barred Owl Butcher and Table became the origin story. Irene’s started out as a pop-up concept back in 2018 out of the fine dining-esque spot at 47 E. Broadway. In late 2020, during the dawn of food takeout, Eisenhauer and Smith became eagerly serious about the business.
“People have said it feels like Dallas and Austin when you’re in here. It has that off-canteen vibe. It’s modern and trendy, but it’s also casual, fun, and fast.”Berrick Wahby
Not even a year later, the two were happy as hogs in mud. A developer was in search of a barbeque stop, in their now-current home, within the Arcade District. Nestled in those two years between the initial launch and the grand opening were a variety of even more pop-ups. Whether it be a collaborative event with their neighbor Beet Box, or a booth set up at Logboat Brewery, the crew was encouraged to keep the community interested and excited by their food.
And even after two years and the opening earlier this season, there are still some twists and turns for the Irene’s team. Eisenhauer explains that adapting to space limitations, the way customers interact, and continually adjusting as needed has been crucial.
Bacon without the sizzle
What is this Mexican barbeque joint all about? Opening the door, the smell of a fire grill and fresh-cooked beef sizzles over. There’s hustle-and-bustle-type audio —the good kind of sound, full of laughter and “mmm that’s tasty!” (As they might say in that big state down south, it sounds like everyone is doing sweeter than stolen honey.)
While in line—and trust me, there’s almost always a line unless you’re an early bird—it’s easy to be caught admiring the image of a bird perched on a tree, a touch made in homage to an image that Eisenhauer has from the first distillery he visited in Oaxaca, Mexico. Finally at the register, be sure to add mezcal into the rotation.
Wahby encourages, “If I could have any customer try one more thing, it’d be trying [the mezcal].” Irene’s line of mezcal is well crafted, supporting local farmers, families, and traditions in other parts of the world. It’s benefiting communities while being good to the planet.
Once done ordering, there’s a decision to make: sit at the bar, chow down in the communal-driven dining floor, or have your meal on the often-sought-after patio. But wherever anticipation lands, be sure to let the eye catch the tetris-style shapes in the bar wall’s tile as an ode to Irene’s neighborhood, the Arcade District. And when the metal, canteen-like tray is set down on the table, hopefully there are some of the house’s thoughtfully crafted, freshly made tortillas to accompany the delectable meal ahead.
At Irene’s, it’s about the food, of course, but it’s just as much about the experience and having a good time.
“I love the fact that we’re impressing people,” Wahby says. “But I’m also looking forward to when people aren’t impressed, and this is the great barbeque place that you go to all the time — when this becomes the regular place where you eat with your friends, share food, drink mezcal, and enjoy.”
It’s made to be a casual and chill space with consistently good eats and interesting things to drink. The atmosphere and, indeed, good eats, have led to tremendous success.
Josh Smith closes, “We were busy right out of the gates, and it feels like we are just starting to catch our breath. So far we’ve had a lot of positive feedback and everyday we are striving to grow from our struggles and build on our successes.”
They’re really going to town
Irene’s is looking forward to representing a whole new type of barbeque for the Columbia and mid-Missouri community. The team is proud of its ideals, ethos, and local, farmer-driven quality. As they say, the restaurant was crafted out of a hunger for something. The team is creating food for the community that fills a need for culinary representation. With all the achievements the business has had so far, it’s difficult to believe that it’s all the tip of the iceberg; but you can hang your hat on it.
In the future, stay tuned for a late-night menu, catering, lunches, online ordering, and many more tasty features.
“There’s so much more to come. And we’re really excited to be able to send barbeque home with you,” Eisenhauer adds.
Texas was made big with many of its treats falling right in that same category. But Irene’s has not let the location define it. It’s just as big and just as flavorful in a state that’s 3.8 times smaller than the inspiration. Meals just as worthy of a drive. A taste just as eventful.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lydia Graves is a culinary writer enamored with the food communities in both Columbia, Missouri, and Des Moines, Iowa.
With several years in the food and service industry, Lydia has a knowledgeable, descriptive and enticing voice backed by wit and energy. She will graduate with a BFA in communications and a BS in business from Stephens College in spring of 2024.
Read Lydia’s stories here: