Noah Corwin has worked as a host at Belltown's Mama's Mexican Kitchen for three years. His first day on the job was just after his 17th birthday. "But," he says, "I've been coming here basically forever."
Days after he was born, Corwin's parents took him to a meal at Mama's. It was the first restaurant he ever went to. And now Corwin spends several days a week there, beginning and ending each day by embracing a life-size sculpture of Elvis Presley and carrying it to and from its post just outside Mama's front door.
Mama's, a Belltown fixture since it opened in 1974, is built on many stories like Corwin's.
Bella Biagio, a server and night manager at Mama's, has worked at the restaurant for 18 years. She tried working at other restaurants, but she kept finding herself back at Mama's. "It's the only place where they always allowed me to be who I am," Biagio says.
In 1976, 19-year-old Eileen Smith drove her friend's Volkswagen bug across the country and ended up in Seattle, where her first job was at Mama's. "My first order was for enchiladas rancheros," Smith recalls. "At the time, I didn't even know what those were."
Smith has worked at Mama's ever since. She's been there long enough to remember when Mama's didn't yet have a liquor license and its signature drink was a margarita made with white wine. ("We should really apologize to people for that," she says.)
When Mama's closes its doors for good on March 31, Smith, along with 44 other employees, will have to find somewhere else to pass their days.
That includes owner Mike McAlpin, who has overseen the day-to-day operations since he helped his cousin open Mama's in June of 1974. He still comes in five or six days a week. McAlpin's wife, Marla, does all of Mama's payroll and bookkeeping. And over the years, all five of his children have worked at the restaurant, and three of his daughters work there now.
In 1999, McAlpin purchased the building that houses Mama's for $900,000. Last March, he sold it to Minglian Holdings, a British Columbia–based affiliate of a Chinese development firm, for more than $4.5 million. Come April, McAlpin says he and his wife will embark on a new adventure: retirement.
"It's the perfect ending," he says. "Well, except for the fact that Mama's is closing."
The story of Mama's Mexican Kitchen is the story of McAlpin's family. The restaurant is named after his maternal grandmother, Esther, aka "Mama." Over the years, Mama, a native of Mexico City, and her third (or fourth—McAlpin can't quite remember) husband, Nolasco, aka "Papa," helped various members of the extended family open several Mexican restaurants in Fresno, Los Angeles, and Honolulu.
The Seattle Mama's is a warren of small rooms, loaded with brightly colored tchotchkes and family mementos. The beaming, beautiful faces of Mama and McAlpin's mother, Alicia, look out over the restaurant from the corner of a small room painted with green leaves and calla lilies. The picture is from a calendar put together with family photographs in 2013. In this small corner of Belltown, time appears to have stopped.
Many of the restaurant's dishes come from Mama Esther's traditional recipes: tamales, chile colorado, enchiladas, and menudo. And while some of the plates are accompanied by large amounts of melted cheese, refried beans, and sour cream that are no longer considered "traditional Mexican," McAlpin points out that the menu has grown and evolved with Seattle's dining preferences.
"Mama never had any chicken or seafood in her recipes," he says. "Over the years, we've added vegetarian stuff, prawns, fish, chicken, and fajitas—she never cooked any of that stuff."
McAlpin knows that Seattle has become "kind of a foodie city," but he's proud that Mama's has remained "a nuts-and-bolts place."
"How many times are you going to go to Canlis?" he asks. "Twice in your lifetime. But you can come to Mama's three times a week—and have leftovers for other meals."
McAlpin recalls how, years ago, a barber in the neighborhood once referred to Mama's as an old-school joint. "I like that," he says. "Mama's has got atmosphere, a cast of characters. It's a place where you want to hang."
The cast of characters at Mama's includes Wally Marsh, whose face may be unfamiliar but whose influence can be seen nearly everywhere. Marsh is responsible for many of Mama's characteristic knickknacks, including the custom wood booth in which diners can eat privately behind a sparkly curtain. McAlpin calls Marsh his "right-hand man"—the guy he calls to fix a water leak or anything else that's broken, which Marsh usually does after hours. But he's also an artist, and it's not uncommon for him to leave "a little extra-special thing" hanging on the wall after he's done his work.
And, of course, there are the customers, many of whom have been coming to Mama's for decades. Since last May, when Mama's closure was first announced, they've been showing up for burritos and enchiladas and sharing stories with the staff, such as the customer who met their spouse in one of the red vinyl booths, or the woman who fell down the restaurant's small set of steps near the bar when she was a child. McAlpin hopes the parade of memories will continue for the next two months.
In Seattle's rapidly changing landscape, the loss of Mama's invokes feelings of both nostalgia and anxiety. Come June, Mama's will be razed. The new owners plan to build an eight-story mixed-use building in its place, with apartments above and a retail business on the ground floor. The business might be another restaurant, and it might even be another Mama's. (McAlpin says he's open to selling the name and helping someone else develop it). But even if that happens, for better or worse, the corner of Second Avenue and Bell Street will never be the same.
"This is an old building," says Biagio. "Sometimes all the burners in the kitchen go out. At new restaurants in new buildings, you never see anyone lose their mind, never see equipment fall apart, never see the reality of life. That's what I love about this place. That's what I'm going to miss."
"Yeah," McAlpin says in agreement. "But at the same time, it's exactly what I'm not going to miss."