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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Inside a San Francisco Classic: Q & A with Mama's Third Generation

Posted By on Thu, Jul 17, 2014 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge The Monte Cristo at Mama's on Washington Square: a turkey, ham, cheddar and gruyere sandwich dipped in egg white and grilled. - FERRON SALNIKER
  • Ferron Salniker
  • The Monte Cristo at Mama's on Washington Square: a turkey, ham, cheddar and gruyere sandwich dipped in egg white and grilled.

You know Mama's on Washington Square -- it's the North Beach restaurant where as early as 8 a.m. you get the a line that wraps around the corner, and once you're inside the restaurant, you get in line some more.

But it's in that second line where that magic happens. While you wait to order, servers are so earnestly cheerful you feel like a regular, the griddle is sizzling, and the cooks are steadily flipping pancakes and plating freshly made crumb cakes. House favorites like the fluffy omelets, French toast, and the Monte Cristo -- a turkey, ham, cheddar and gruyere sandwich dipped in egg white and grilled -- rotate out of the kitchen quickly. You might want to hate on a wait that long, but the pale yellow walls and country knickknacks are such a warm contrast to most foggy mornings outside, you'll probably just feel happy to be here.

The restaurant has been serving breakfast on the same corner for 50 years, so I caught up with Mama's granddaughter, Felicia Sanchez McDonell to talk about the history of the business, how they've stayed relevant and pancakes. These days Felicia is staying home more to raise her new daughter, but you can usually find her along with her brother Mike behind the counter.

SFoodie: What's the history behind Mama's?

Sanchez: My grandfather opened it as an ice cream shop in 1951 and they started cooking food in the 1960s. My grandmother had eight kids, so she felt like it wasn't much of a stretch to cook for more people. My parents took it over almost 20 years ago. My dad is the oldest son and he's the baker, he's the one who started doing the homemade breads and jams. My brother and I have been running things with him for about 10 years now.

Any items on the menu that have been there from the very beginning?

The slim joe burger has been there since the beginning. A lot of the crab dishes and some of the other dishes have kept similar styles. The pancakes are a very old family recipe, and they're just classic, old fashioned pancakes. My grandmother just really loved having lots of fresh foods -- so you can still see that when you walk in to see the fruits and salads, and freshly baked breads right out of the oven.

After all these years Mama's is still really popular -- and not just with tourists -- is there a secret to staying relevant?

I think that we just have managed to maintain a nice balance of embracing our history and maintaining the charm of an older place, but not being on autopilot. Being a family business makes a big difference, we are all very committed to maintaining the same quality as before.

What should first-time diners know about eating at Mama's?

Bring someone you like chatting with. The wait goes up and down, but we've seen it get longer and longer in the summer months for about the past five years. But once you get in, the food comes quickly and we don't rush you. Regulars know to come really early or later in the afternoon. The Monte Cristo is something people come back for, but try ordering a bunch of things and share family style. And don't forget to order the pancakes.

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Ferron Salniker

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