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.”