Under new ownership, Mama’s Kitchen still attracting regulars

Chicharron en Salsa Ranchera at Mama’s Kitchen, 504 Hildebrand Ave.

Previously published:
Review: Mama’s Kitchen
Great Tacos: Chicharron en Salsa Ranchera at Mama’s Kitchen

Mama’s Kitchen is a renovated bright yellow house nestled between a hair salon and a jewelry store on 504 W. Hildebrand Ave. Its trademark yellow sign on the front declares to passing motorists: “110% Mexican food.”

For the better part of a decade, the restaurant has been a popular destination for residents of the surrounding Alta Vista neighborhood and for students of the nearby universities, who receive a 10 percent student discount.

Inside, Mama’s looks like your average Mexican joint: aguas frescas immediately to the right of the entrance, fake plants, pictures of lunch plates hung on the vermilion walls. The old-fashioned style of the place has a certain charm, but the restaurant is set to undergo some big changes.

Owner Hanz Estrada bought the restaurant in March from Gloria and Ofelio Mondragon, who started Mama’s as a change of pace from their previous lives as truck drivers. Estrada has worked his way through the restaurant industry over the past 10 years, starting as a drive-through operator at a Steak and Shake. He now manages a Mediterranean restaurant in Plano and lives in McKinney, and has set his sights on Mama’s as his ingress to life as a restaurateur.

When Estrada heard from a friend about a little Mexican restaurant for sale in San Antonio, five hours from McKinney, he was understandably reluctant. But when that friend gave Estrada’s phone number to the Mondragons, who began contacting Estrada personally, he was compelled to take a weekend road trip to check the place out. After he tasted the food and read promising reviews online, Estrada purchased the restaurant.

Estrada, 35, has big plans to modernize Mama’s Kitchen. He wants to open a second location within the next three years, but he’s starting with small steps. His first change is online ordering; customers will soon be able to order their tacos online and pick them up in the store.

“People get comfortable with what they know instead of adventuring to what technology brings out right now,” Estrada said. “I want to solidify that first.”

Estrada acknowledged the restaurant’s parking situation won’t make to-go orders easy — there’s room for about four cars in the front and a smattering of additional parking in the back — accessible by a tight squeeze between the restaurant and the neighboring hair salon. He said he’s in talks with the owners of the salon to use some of their parking space for Mama’s.

He said he doesn’t plan on removing many menu items, but with the help of his mother, Blanca Estrada, who has been working in the kitchen since he bought it, he’s adding new items and tweaking old ones. Blanca Estrada has been a chef for 20 years, and owns a restaurant in Mexico City, where she normally lives. For four years in the late 80’s, she went to culinary school in Mexico, where she said she was taught by an instructor who was the personal chef of the Miguel de la Madrid, the president of Mexico at the time.

Days after buying the restaurant, the Estradas completely replaced the chicharron en salsa ranchera with a new recipe — from a green sauce to a red one and chewy pork skins to soft, slow-cooked ones. That same month, the Tacoist published an article lauding the new recipe and later named it one of San Antonio’s Great Tacos.

In addition to the typical taco combinations, Mama’s is home to some you won’t find in most taquerias — including rice and egg, spinach and egg, and liver and onions. Hanz Estrada said his first instinct was to remove these unusual tacos from the menu, but was surprised at how popular they are. Blanca Estrada said she thought the old menu was “bueno” and required only small changes.

Estrada’s changes so far have been gradual enough that some customers did not know there was new ownership at all.

“I wasn’t even aware there was a change,” Carlos Saavedra, a regular at Mama’s, said.

Saavedra and his friends Thomas Duckworth and Paul Sickler have eaten at Mama’s for four years, Saavedra said. The group convenes at the restaurant, each coming from different corners of San Antonio, to eat breakfast once or twice a month.

“I think it’s always good when you go out to eat that you know that when you go there, you’re going to get what you expect, and that’s that this place is,” Duckworth said.

“And nice service, too,” Saavedra added. “Very welcoming.”

Waitress Silvia Najera has worked at Mama’s for four years, and said she enjoys getting to know regulars.

“I like to be a waitress because I can speak with a lot of people,” Najera said. She said that something as simple as knowing a regular’s typical order can bring them joy when they’re feeling down.

Najera said regulars often enjoy the menudo, which Saavedra also said is one of his favorites.

Hanz Estrada puts a great deal of trust in employees like Najera since he lives in the Metroplex and only comes to San Antonio on weekends, and Blanca Estrada will soon head back to Mexico to tend to her own restaurant. He said running a restaurant that way requires trust in his employees.

“It’s a matter of believing in people,” he said. When he trusts his employees, he said, they feel empowered to run the restaurant in his absence.

“Whenever you empower the people to do stuff, I think you can achieve great things,” he said.

Najera worked alongside the Mondragons for years. She described the restaurant under their leadership as “classic.” She summed up Estrada’s ambitions in six words that could easily replace the restaurant’s old motto with:

“More modern, more fresh, more new.”


Mendez Cafe has become a Southside institution

Previously published
» Great Tacos: Ham and Egg, Mendez Cafe
» Taqueria Report: Mendez Cafe, 201 Bartholomew Ave.

The maple-glazed ham and egg at Mendez Cafe. Photo by Ben Olivo / The Tacoist

Delores Mendez rolls out little balls of dough into discs and tosses them on the griddle — a routine she’s practiced on the same griddle for 31 years. Outside the kitchen, in the small and packed dining room of Mendez Cafe on the Southside, servers carry plates of enchiladas, fajitas and tacos to customers who recognize and greet one another as they walk in.

On a wall in the back are several photographs of a baseball team that Mendez’s husband and co-owner Lupe Mendez played on for nine years. A small picture of the Virgin Mary hangs by the ticket holder in the kitchen.

“You have to like what you do,” Mendez said as she began to separate more balls of tortilla dough from a larger mass.

In June 1986, when Delores and Lupe Mendez bought the property at 201 Bartholomew Ave., they didn’t have any experience cooking professionally. When they bought the restaurant, they planned on Delores Mendez’s sister to cook the food and her family to be the staff.

The building was in bad shape: The ceiling was caved in and the floors desperately needed to be replaced.

“It was horrible,” Delores Mendez said.

The Mendezes took out a loan and put thousands of dollars into repairing the building and getting it ready for business. Then, her sister suddenly lost interest in the business, and the Mendezes were left with a restaurant they couldn’t afford to quit and had no idea how to run.

“I really thought I was just going to shut it down and that would be the end of that story.”

Lupe Mendez talks about Mendez Cafe’s history recently. Within 10 years of opening the restaurant, the Mendezes added another room to the building and more parking space. Brianna Rodrigue / Special to The Tacoist

She didn’t know where to turn, so she went to church. There, she met Sister Angele, the principal of Saint Margaret Mary Church & School. Mendez said Sister Angele encouraged her to stick with the business a little longer.

She began developing her own recipes based on the food her mother and grandmother cooked when she was growing up. She slowly started finding workers, and Mendez café began to build its clientele.

“After that happened to me with my sister, I said, ‘From now on, I’m not going to depend on anybody for anything.’ If I have to sweep, mop, wash dishes, I’ll do it,” she said.

Thirty one years later, the Mendezes have built a gathering place for their part of the Southside. They’ve seen children, once brought to the café by their parents, become adults who now bring their own children.

Edward Mendoza has come to the restaurant since he was in high school, when one of his friends worked at the restaurant as a cook.

“It’s that nostalgic, home-cooked type of things that we grew up with,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza said that Delores Mendez’s enchiladas are the must-try dish at the café. Mendez said they’re the place’s best-selling dish.

Mendez said her tacos sell even better than the lunch plates. The carne guisada is the most popular. She said the secret to good carne guisada is finding the right balance of spices — garlic, cumin, chili powder and black pepper, to name a few.

“I just put enough (spices), but not to where it stands out,” she said.

Mendez’s ham and egg taco is another stand-out item. Maple-glazed ham from the local H-E-B is chopped up and fried on the grill before being folded into eggs and delivered in one of Mendez’s fresh tortillas. The ham is so memorable that some regulars substitute slices of it for bacon in their huevos rancheros and other plates.

Mendez said regulars at the restaurant often substitute items or go off-menu. “If people prefer something else, it doesn’t have to be on the menu; we’ll make it for them,” she said.

Yessica Reynoso makes a carne guisada taco; she’s been working the line at Mendez Cafe for eight years. Brianna Rodrigue / Special to The Tacoist

When you’re a regular at Mendez Café, you start to recognize the faces of other Mendez obsessives. In fact, most of the customers in the restaurant are regulars. You don’t eat Mendez’s tortillas just once.

“We have made friends with our customers,” Delores Mendez said. “They’re not just customers, they’re friends.”

The Mendezes have worked to build not only the community within their walls, but the surrounding area as well. They, along with other business owners in the area, started a neighborhood association shortly after establishing the café, advocating to their council members to improve sidewalks, clean up graffiti and other neighborhood upgrades.

“I feel that I have a lot of important people that come in here,” Mendez said. “Even though it’s just a little restaurant … I feel that the neighborhood should be a nice place for people to come and eat.”

Vanessa Mendez, the Mendez’ youngest daughter, grew up in the café. She started working in the kitchen when she was 12.

“I don’t know any other life,” she said. “This is life to me.”

Now, 33-year-old Mendez brings her young sons to the restaurant sometimes. Her 9-year-old says he wants to work there when he’s older, too. She said she loves getting to know the café’s regulars and hearing their stories.

“I feel like they’ve created something, I don’t know, amazing,” she said.

It’s not always easy to run a beloved café. Delores Mendez said she’s had many issues with staff and customers throughout the decades, but she always finds a way through them.

Her business is “like we say in Spanish, muy celoso — business is jealous,” she said. “If you don’t give it what it needs, it’s going to mess you up.”

Despite those hardships, however, the Mendezes don’t see themselves stopping any time soon.

“I’m not a really good stay-at-home mom,” Delores Mendez said. “I’m that type of person that has to be doing things.”