Oh Mama's: Revisiting Seattle's First Best Mexican Restaurant

The most memorable table at Mama's Mexican Kitchen is a big, high-backed booth tucked away in one corner of the warren of dining rooms that make up the entirety of the floor.It's past the front room, choked with customers waiting on to-go orders and small parties just in from the heat, wilting into booths upholstered in red vinyl while they wait for their first rounds of giant margaritas in glasses like crystal buckets; past the little interstitial seating area in the bottleneck leading back into the depths of the place; past the turnoff for the main floor and the covered outdoor seating area where hordes of Belltown hipsterati sit with their trucker shades and long-pour cocktails. This table is all the way back by the wall in the corner, and to sit there is to see the whole history of Mama's bloom around you like an archaeologist exploring the tomb of some Mayan king obsessed with skulls and Elvis and neon beer signs.The blue plaster walls are covered with scrawled Bic-pen graffiti; the high, curving wood of the booth's frame with names and dates written in Sharpie or literally gouged into the finish. And the seat backs on either side are gray with decades' worth of furtive scratching—more names and more dates, hasty pictures of eyeballs and skulls and declarations of love.They are the cave paintings of Homo sapiens, hurried affirmations of existence, however brief, in this place at a certain time. The most recent is just two names, a man and a woman, who sat amid this swirl of history on July 22, 2010. The eldest are long gone—covered and smudged to gray illegibility, adding only a patina of age and forgotten good times to the cloth and wood and plaster. But in between is everything from sketches of trees, grinning skulls, and dire warnings (HERPES, written in a bold hand with an arrow pointing to a name left by some previous occupant) to simple tags (Carla, in a looping hand faded almost to invisibility and with no date appended) and the modern love poetry of the tequila-drunk and heartbroken (FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL...).I was shown to this booth the first time I ever ate at Mama's. My second time through, I requested it. Third time, it was already occupied by a gaggle of long legs in short-shorts with girls attached—already well into the Mexican Bad Decision Juice by 6:30 on a Wednesday. So instead I hooked a left into the front room, where some local band was bemoaning the lack of available bass players on the scene and the stereo was playing a psychotic mashup of ABBA, Michael Jackson, and old-school NYC punk from the days when Mama's was still young and feisty and rare in offering tacos, burritos, and taquitos to Seattle's Belltown crowds.Mama's has been at the corner of Second Avenue and Bell Street since 1974, and is beloved by many. But sometimes people turn up their noses at Mama's because of its staunch refusal to behave like a Mexican restaurant of the sort that lock-jawed foodies respect—to go all traditional and peasant-simple with the hog-face tacos and huitlacoche and strange moles with 10 generations' worth of backstory. What the snobs are incapable of realizing, though, is that the food that Mama's does is traditional and historic in its own right.It's just a different kind of tradition, coming from a very different history.Inside Mama's, the walls are covered with pictures: photographs, paintings, beer signs, flags, rising suns, twinkle lights, and sombreros all snag the eye. It's as if a gypsy cart full of arguable Gaudí masterpieces, American rock-and-roll kitsch, and the estate-sale hauls from a hundred Tijuana nightclubs pulled straight into the center of Mama's one day and just exploded.Elvis, that great hero of Mexican-American relations, figures big in the design scheme here. Fever-bright neon burns everywhere you look. It's the ultimate weird-uncle-attic of a restaurant—a kind of museum of schlock. And the effect can be overwhelming, especially after a few cocktails.But with all these visual fireworks suspended forever on the walls, it's easy to miss the less-flashy details—like the Best of Seattle readers'-poll award Mama's won as the best Mexican restaurant in town in 1986—the first year Seattle Weekly did a Best of Seattle issue. We're celebrating our 25th Best of Seattle issue this week, and that's what got me here in the first place—to relax into the clamor of one very odd restaurant with a historic pull when it came to introducing Seattle to this weird new stuff called "Mexican food."In fact, when Mama's first opened, it stood as one of the city's very first Mexican restaurants—and about the only one of that bunch that's still in operation today."There was only a couple other places then," explains Mike McAlpin, who bought Mama's from his cousin, Ed Moya, in 1976 after just two years in business, and who stood as the place's cook for more than 10 years. "There was Casa Lupita," he recalls—referring to a tiny place where one woman (Lupita) did all the cooking. "And another place on Roosevelt—Campos, maybe? And I think there was Azteca in Burien."McAlpin comes from a restaurant family—a big restaurant family, with history that goes back generations. His grandmother (the Mama this restaurant is named after, originally from Mexico City) and grandfather (Baja-born and -bred) owned restaurants all over California. His parents owned restaurants, too. Then there were the cousins, the aunts and uncles.The very first Mama's opened in Hawaii in 1971. It would later expand to three locations, in Hawaii and then Seattle—a market with a noticeable lack of the Southern California style of Mexican food that his family had been cooking and serving for generations.The stuff McAlpin learned from his Mexican-American grandparents was a mutt style from a time when Mexican food in America was still exciting and maddeningly strange. There were no Mexican ingredients sold in most grocery stores, no easy access to tortillas, chiles, or beans. In the early days, McAlpin had to have tortillas brought from eastern Washington by bus because there was no other way to get them.In the few places in the country where Mexican restaurants existed (mostly Southern California and the border towns of New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas), the overwhelming fashion was for thick enchiladas smothered in melted cheese, dusty hard-shell tacos filled with lettuce and tomatoes and sour cream, Mexican salads with ground beef and crumbled tortilla chips and black olives. Back then, sliced black olives were a sort of psycho-culinary shorthand that told brave eaters that what they were eating was "ethnic" and "foreign"—a small (and totally Americanized) gustatory thrill from weird, funny-shaped countries where not everyone ate meatloaf, cheeseburgers, and hoppin' john.What Mama's offers now is a Mexican-American cuisine virtually unchanged since 1974—a Southern California style just as vital, accurate, and authentic as anything served in the muy auténtico foodie-approved taquerias scattered around the city. The tacos are deep-fried, stuffed with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, guacamole, and shredded beef, and topped with a fall of coarsely shredded American cheese. There are simple quesadillas, nachos, and SUPER nachos (they include beans, green chiles, bell peppers for some reason, and of course black olives), with baskets of chips and a thin, tomatoey salsa brought free to every table—because of all the great innovations of Americanized Mexican food, the notion of free chips and house salsa is one of the best.Sitting in the back booth in Mama's dining room, I tried to track the convolutions of gastronomic history that would've made Mama's offer a "Colorado Chili" plate of smoky, earthy red chile (with an "e") studded with chunks of beef alongside a "Chili Verde" plate of chopped green chiles and cilantro in a thickened broth served with cubed and roasted pork. What's strange about this backwards nomenclature is that chile in Colorado is classically green and pork-shot—almost a stew, served with fresh tortillas for sponging up the good stuff. Red chile is rare there—not unknown, but not remotely as popular as the Colorado green. I chuckled to myself about this, but ordered both versions anyway.I ate sopes (cornmeal cakes) that were tough and topped with chicken that'd been too long in the steam table. Then I ate enchiladas wet with what this house calls Colorado chili, filled with cheese and diced onions. The dish was so tasty that it made me rethink all the years and miles I've burned looking for the authentic roots of a cuisine that I have adopted as one of my own.I ate rellenos in a fluffy egg batter—not the hard-fried version more common in Southwestern restaurants today, but more like French toast made with a cheese-stuffed poblano instead of bread. The beef tamales I paired it with were dry, the meat pasty and the whole thing a mess that tasted as though it'd been made three days prior.On another night, I had an enormous Elvis Presley burrito—gooey refritos with an aftertaste of slick grease and carne asada inside a massive burrito covered in red chile ranchero sauce and a jacket of melted cheese. It's the kind of thing that should be the star of one of those competitive-eating shows on cable—a massive platter swimming in red sauce with the burrito floating like a battleship in the middle. But in keeping with the Southern California style espoused by McAlpin, it was perfect: large and messy and guilty-pleasure good because, really, who in their right mind, not completely warped by their presumed duty to whole foods and cultural preservation, can dislike an enormous plate of beef, beans, and melted cheese?That then is the central issue at play in the 36-year relationship Seattle has had with Mama's. It's a simple question of whether one can give equal credence to the American roots of a Mexican cuisine—if one can accept that this was the way Americans once saw the entirety of the Latin-American canon, and hail McAlpin as not just the owner of a retro-kitsch temple to backwards, cheese-cloaked faux-Mexican grub, but a real preservationist: a man who learned to cook from the ultimate source, his own grandmother, and who's spent years doing nothing but what she taught him.Personally, I'm cool with that. I love street tacos. I love menudo and posole and chicharones and all those things that judgmental foodies would call "real" Mexican food. But there is room in my heart for Mama's food as well. Lots of room, for all the once-removed authenticity and side-branch history it entails.Which was why, on my fourth and final visit, I was happy to once again find my favorite booth unoccupied. Relaxing in the pre-rush quiet, I drank cold Coronas and ate a deep-fried taco, waiting for just the right moment.Because this time, I'd brought a Sharpie of my own.jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

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