The building that houses Seattle’s oldest Mexican restaurant has been sold to a Chinese development firm for $4.5 million and will be torn down.
Mama’s Mexican Kitchen — Seattle’s oldest Mexican restaurant and the cheesy, kitschy standby of Belltown — is to be demolished and replaced by an eight-story, 60-unit mixed-use development.
Owner Mike McAlpin sold the property in March for more than $4.5 million to Minglian Realty, a Richmond, B.C.-based affiliate of a Chinese development firm.
Mama’s opened at Second Avenue and Bell Street in 1974, with June 1 marking its 41st birthday. McAlpin purchased the business and the building from his cousin in 1976. He holds a six-month lease on the space, and he intends to keep Mama’s open until at least September, perhaps longer.
“I’m a little saddened that it’s gonna end,” McAlpin said, “but I’m 65 now, and they came to me and made me a nice offer, and I thought, ‘Well, go for it.’ ”
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“The times, they are a-changing,” McAlpin said. “We will feel bad for our customers. It’s really multigenerational in a way, and we’ll miss that.”
Three of McAlpin’s daughters work part time at the restaurant, while server Eileen Smith has been at Mama’s for 40 years and server Bella Biagio for 18. Some of Mama’s cooks have been employed there for 15 to 20 years, McAlpin said.
The Mama of Mama’s was McAlpin’s maternal grandmother, and the restaurant’s recipes are hers. Few would count the loss of Mama’s as a culinary tragedy — the food is of the lake-of-melted-cheese, Americanized combo-plate variety (McAlpin’s grandmother was originally from Mexico City, but the family lived in California).
But over the years, Mama’s has become a beloved Seattle institution with its divey, over-the-top, Mexican-tchotchkes-meets-velvet-Elvis décor. It anchors a block that houses other old-school, inexpensive spots like Shorty’s and the Lava Lounge (McAlpin used to own the latter, but sold it about three years ago).
Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love were regulars at Mama’s, according to McAlpin, and many other stars of rock and beyond have been patrons, including Ann and Nancy Wilson, Eddie Vedder, Stone Gossard, Marilyn Manson, Tom Skerritt, Drew Barrymore, Nick Offerman and Tom Robbins.
Many customers have mentioned the impending closure, McAlpin said. “They’re not happy … They’re a little nostalgic.”
Among his 45 employees, “There was an initial panic — now it’s more like, let’s make it a good summer, keep doing what we do and see what happens.”
McAlpin is open to the possibility of selling the Mama’s name, saying, “I would help somebody reopen … I’m wide open to that. They’d have to come to me. With money. Because I do want to retire.”
The development planned for the Mama’s property is in environmental and design review with the Seattle Department of Planning and Development. The firm that is the applicant for the permit, Studio 19 Architects, has also designed multiple mixed-use projects in the area, as well as J. Crew stores and a Hampton Inn in Everett.
“Other places have closed down,” McAlpin said, “and life goes on.”