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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Mama Alma

March 23, 2010

A few short years ago a beautiful, young, and energetic, Latino mother of four drove by a building every day and dreamed of the restaurant she hoped to open there. The building wasn’t much to look at— a former convenience store that had housed several failed restaurants— but to this driven and determined lady it was the physical manifestation of a lifetime of dreams She had been cooking since she was six-years old, when— back in Mexico— she would stand on a banana crate in her godmother’s kitchen and do her weekly chores, one of which was cooking supper for the family. Though her recent years were spent cleaning other people’s homes and selling tamales out of the back of her minivan at the Downtown Farmer’s Market in Hattiesburg, the dream never died.

Every evening when they drove by the small ramshackle building on their way home after a workday longer than most of us can imagine, she would tell her husband, “I’m going to open my restaurant there.” With four children and a single-minded dedication to raising them, and with the determination and pride not to rely on any government assistance, there just never seemed to be enough money at the end of the month.

Finally, after the job market slowed, she went to a friend’s house on a Sunday afternoon after church— her 12-year old and 15-year old daughters in tow— and asked the friends, who had offered assistance several times, if she could borrow a small amount of money to open a restaurant. In her lap was her jewelry box, the one material possession she thought might be enough for collateral.

That was all I needed to know about Alma Gonzalez— the jewelry box— to know that she was a special businesswoman. The friends, Kim and Kinny Howell, told her to keep the jewelry, they would become her partners and open the restaurant together.

The small building that used to house a convenience store was rented, used restaurant equipment was purchased, friends from the church helped paint walls, and— six weeks ago—Alma Gonzalez began living her dream.

Mama Alma’s Kitchen isn’t much to look at, but the food embodies the passion of the owner. I don’t throw out statements such as these lightly, but this small, 10-table, 50-seat café has the potential to become the best Mexican restaurant in the state of Mississippi.

At Mama Alma’s Kitchen on the Highway 42 Bypass in Hattiesburg, it’s all about the food. I love that. It’s not your typical Americanized chips-and-salsa-and-dump-a-bunch-of cheese-and-beef-into-a-flour-or-corn-tortilla Mexican restaurant. It’s the real deal.

Alma is a passionate stickler for authenticity. Everything is made from scratch. Nothing is dumped out of a can. Ingredients are shipped from Texas and Mexico, hominy is shelled, tomatillos are boiled and peeled. This is work. Hard work. But is the work that Alma loves. It is the work that will support her family.

With her husband, Horacio executing her recipes in the kitchen, and her daughters helping to serve tables when they’re not in school, Alma recreates the food she began cooking in her godmother’s kitchen, and the food she remembers eating from street vendors in Mexico because there wasn’t enough money to eat in a restaurant.

Mexican is my favorite ethnic cuisine. Mama Alma’s is my new home away from home. It’s the real Mexican food that used to take a six-hour plane ride with at least one layover to eat— seven salsas and sauces made from scratch every morning, Ceviche, Barbacoa Tacos, two different moles using seven different chilies, an authentic pozole that takes two days to prepare, all using Mama Alma’s passion and dedication to fresh and made-from-scratch cooking.

There is enough Americanization to keep it accessible, and the service is slow, mostly because Alma waits the tables, works the kitchen, and handles the cash register. But she’ll soon learn that servers can be hired to take orders, cashiers can be used to receive money, but no one can be put on the payroll that has the passion for food and the dedication to producing it as authentically as the owner. Alma’s got passion in spades.

Mama Alma’s Kitchen actually feels like Alma’s home kitchen. There’s usually a television tuned to the Nickelodeon channel playing a little too loudly in the corner, and someone is rounding up young Horacio, but the family prays together every day before the kitchen gets cranked up, and every day prayers are being answered.

The menu is still a work in progress, and some of the best food I’ve eaten there was by just letting Alma go to the back and “whip something up.” Many of the best items aren’t even on the menu, but they’re available if you ask Alma.

When I asked my friend Emily to describe her friend Alma, the words that kept surfacing were, “genuine, selfless, dependable, passionate” and “a dedicated mother who would give up anything for her kids.” That’s really all you need to know about Mama Alma’s Kitchen.

I have always believed that success follows passion. Alma was willing to give up whatever it took to take care of her family. Those of us who eat her food are certainly the better for it.

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