The beloved Belltown institution will live on under new owner Marcus Charles, but can legions of fans deal with its overhaul?
Slated to close forever March 31, beloved Seattle institution Mama’s Mexican Kitchen will now live on under the new ownership of Marcus Charles. Changes are planned, however, with the restaurant closing for about a month for a remodel, some of the famously kitschy art departing, and a menu overhaul by a new chef, according to current owner Mike McAlpin. The name will also change to Mama’s Cantina.
The announcement of Mama’s impending closure after 41 years as a divey Belltown favorite to make way for new development was met with public outcry last spring. Stepping in to keep the business open, Charles owns two neighborhood restaurants, Local 360 and Bell + Whete, as well as famed Belltown club The Crocodile, which he bought and rehabbed when it faced closure in 2008.
In a statement, Charles said, “Keeping Mama’s open, and in its original location, means a lot to me, the neighborhood and Seattle residents. It’s a piece of Seattle history that cannot be lost on future generations.”
But die-hard fans of lowbrow Mama’s will doubtless take issue with upscale changes. Regarding Charles’ intentions for the restaurant’s festive hodgepodge décor, “He wants to keep the Elvis Room,” McAlpin said, but beyond that, “he doesn’t really care about the art too much.” McAlpin has been making note of employees’ and customers’ requests for “particular stuff,” which he’ll give to them as keepsakes.
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New chef Jenny Izaguirre will come from Charles’ Bell + Whete, across Bell Street from Mama’s, and while some might argue that almost any alterations to the menu would be an improvement, the planned replacement of Mama’s cheesy Tex-Mex combo plates with the likes of banh mi burritos and Korean short rib quesadillas is sure to upset some.
“We’re going to focus on doing not-your-traditional Mexican food,” Izaguirre says. The Elvis burrito will be one holdover, but it’ll have wagyu skirt steak inside a house-made tortilla as part of “a new direction.” Tacos will start at $3 each, and Izaguirre says the all a-la-carte menu offers the option to “tailor your own experience.”
Current staff will be welcome to apply to Mama’s Cantina, and Izaguirre says, “I’m pretty sure you will still see some familiar faces.”
Regarding Charles’ purchase of Mama’s, McAlpin said, “He told me he didn’t want to have to look across the street at a boarded-up restaurant all summer. That was his impetus, I think.” McAlpin said he received a one-eighth share in the business for the equipment and the Mama’s name with “the goodwill that goes along with it.” Of the deal as a whole, he commented, “I think it’s a good thing for everyone involved — good for me, good for him, good for the city.”
However, McAlpin noted, “It will really be the end of Mama’s as everyone’s known it — it’s going to be a different operation. It is an end for me, but a new beginning, in a way, for Marcus.”
Charles was unavailable for further comment. Demolition for the new building has been pushed back, possibly to October, according to McAlpin. Once construction of the eight-story, 60-unit mixed-use development is complete, a new version of Charles’ Mama’s Cantina will be installed. McAlpin sold the property last March for more than $4.5 million to Minglian Realty, a Richmond, B.C.-based affiliate of a Chinese development firm.