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Vegetarians in Paradise

 Vegetarian Restaurant Review

Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe R: If ever there was a "Hot Mama," that moniker belongs to Mama Sandi Romero who opened Mama's Hot Tamales Café across the street from McArthur Park in Los Angeles eleven years ago. As we've visited and written about many restaurants, we've learned there is a compelling story behind each one.

For Mama, the driving force was a desire to transform the crime and drug-embroiled McArthur Park into the attractive urban oasis it once was. With an economic development and neighborhood revitalization project, Mama, along with Executive Director Joe Coletti, Ph.D. and Bishop J. Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, formed the Institute for Urban Research and Development, a community-based non-profit organization.

Z: She has succeeded and done it well! Across from the restaurant, beautiful McArthur Park is now a place where the community comfortably gathers for a stroll around the lake, a picnic, a family party, or just a place to relax and watch the birds and ducks swim or peck away at stray seeds.

Sandi Romero R: Inside the colorful restaurant the lunch bustle sets the place buzzing with activity as colorful plates of tamales and traditional Mexican specialties carried by volunteer students almost fly from the kitchen to the tables.

Z: Mama's Hot Tamales is more than a restaurant. Part of the area revitalization included small business development and job training in Mama's kitchen where she has taught hundreds of students of all ages from 18 to 75 how to operate a restaurant, create a business plan, or set up a small food business.

R: The menu, designed by one of her students, is also colorful and features a section that reads "About Mama's" that briefly explains the training program that teaches authentic, from-scratch food preparation representing dishes from various parts of Latin America. When asked what she had for vegans, Mama began to rattle off a number of tempting items. We left the food selections to her and waited only a short time for our tasty surprises that were delivered by Karen, a volunteer who displays her art in the adjacent gallery Mama created to benefit local artists and to serve as a locale for community events.

Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe Z: For thirst quenchers, Reuben ordered a Tamarindo. I chose the Jamaica. Tall, cool, and totally refreshing, the lightly sweetened Tamarindo was the perfect beverage choice on this very hot day. They had run out of Jamaica after their busy lunch hour that day, but the Tamarindo didn't disappoint. A few sips later our Peruvian Quinoa Tabouleh salad arrived along with the giant tofu-filled Torta. The neatly formed mound of tasty quinoa was well seasoned with citrus vinaigrette and surrounded with chopped romaine lettuce and cucumber slices. Nestled on the top was a garnish of diced mint, onions, and tomatoes. While we've prepared quinoa many times at home and enjoyed it at vegetarian eateries, we saw this as a first encounter at a Mexican restaurant and were delighted it was a regular item on the menu.

R: The Torta was a huge sandwich piled high with shredded romaine, chopped tomatoes, grilled well-seasoned tofu, rice, pinto beans, and a generous measure of avocado all stacked in a giant bun. Impossible to pick up, just as the menu notes, the torta is a fork and knife endeavor. Because Mama's is not an all-vegetarian eatery, the Torta, as well as many other dishes, can be filled with chicken, beans and cheese, or tofu, making the restaurant an ideal place where vegans can dine with non-vegetarian family and friends.

Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe Z: The Salsa served on the side was quite lively and added a pleasant little jolt of spice to the Torta. What I loved was the pleasing combination of pleasantly warmed tofu and rice combined with the chilled lettuce and tomatoes, creating a wonderful sensation of multiple textures, flavors, and temperatures.

R: Mama's place is as colorful as Mama herself. On one vivid, tangerine-sponged wall is a brilliant, multicolored, three-panel mural depicting a giant sun, stunning ears of corn, lots of red chile peppers, and fields dotted with farmers planting and gathering. The central figure, a woman wearing an Aztec headdress, is shown against a yellow background representing the sun. The opposite wall displays the works of local artists. On one of our visits we enjoyed the dramatic black and white paper cut illustrations by Guillermo Ortiz-Lopez.

Z: The bottom portion of the walls is painted in a dramatic ultramarine blue. The restaurant is spacious and made even more cheerful with rough-hewn tables and chairs painted in primary reds, blues, and lime greens with some deep brown tables as well. Some of the tabletops featured giant sunflowers, irises, and other flowers, while a few of the chairs were enhanced with colorful flowers along the sides and backs.

Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe R: Mama's tamales are a unique encounter. Because the teaching experience encompasses the food styles of various Latin countries, students learn that tamales can be wrapped in cornhusks, banana leaves, or avocado leaves. We ordered the Spinach and Mushroom Tamale with Aji Escabeche that was wrapped in cornhusks, typical of Mexico. Made from white corn masa, or flour, this tamale was filled with a bounty of sliced mushrooms, chopped spinach, and little bits of Aji Escabeche, a special red pepper imported from Peru.

Z: All it took was one bite to convince us this was the tastiest tamale we had ever eaten. Because it was so satisfying and flavorful, it didn't need even one drop of salsa to enhance it. As we became aware of the music in the background, we noticed the large room became much cozier filled with the sounds of Sergio Mendez from his Brazil 66 recording, followed by Edie Gorme belting soft strains of "Amor, Amor, Amor" accompanied by the Trio Las Panchos. Were we still in Los Angeles? We could easily have imagined ourselves in Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Honduras, or El Salvador, the countries represented by the dishes prepared in the kitchen.

R: While perusing the menu, I spotted the dessert section that mentioned sweet tamales. Hmmm, who could resist a Caramel Apple Tamale? That was our dessert that arrived steaming hot and glistening with a light coating of caramel that sent an aromatic blend of sweet fragrance into the air.

Z: We devoured with gusto - me gusta, me gusta! should have been our cry, but instead we simply ravished the rich caramel flavor and the many chunks of apples embedded within the sweet corn masa and wearing the color and flavor of a caramel apple. It couldn't have been a more perfect finish.

Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe R: On our second visit, we learned Mama now has Daiya cheese for her vegan customers, prompting us to order a Chile Relleno with the mozzarella and Enchiladas with the cheddar. The enchilada came with a gorgeous salad of baby lettuces, cucumbers, and tomatoes with avocado vinaigrette on the side. Both entrees sported a mound of rice and were smothered in a richly flavored chipotle sauce with just enough spice to liven up the dish. The cheese, which melts to a silky texture and stays soft and creamy, strikes a note of nostalgia for us, recalling it has been more than 20 years since we had experienced cheese that tastes and feels so much like the real thing.

Z: Other vegan choices include Black Bean and Herb Tamale or the special tamale of the day, Spinach and Mushroom Empanadas, Burritos, Tostadas, and Tortas made with tofu marinated in chipotle sauce, Nopales Salad, and Mama's House Salad. None of the foods are prepared with lard, only vegetable oils. The foods, while very tasty, are served very simply and rely on flavor and authenticity rather than elaborate presentation.

R: The restaurant is only open for lunch from 11:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., but Mama offers catering, tamale classes, and community events to the public during off hours. Prices are very reasonable with tamales at $2.75 each, Appetizers from $2.50 to $4.50, Soups $3.00 for a cup, $5.00 for a bowl, Salads from $4.50 to $6.00, Specialties from $6.00 to $8.00, Combo plates from $6.25 to $9.00.

Z: While the students learned much from Mama, Mama learned from her students as well. One young man helped her become part of the green movement with composting of the kitchen waste and informal meals served on plates made of sugar cane, straws from rice, cups from corn, and forks made from potato.

Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe R: On the wall over our table hung the sign that read "Rediscover McArthur Park." We couldn't help feeling the passion and dedication that has gone into the program funded with grants from Bank of America and others. PACE (Pacific Asian Consortium in Employment) became involved as well and has now taken over the teaching program to help jump-start entrepreneurs into the food field.

Z: In the large colorful room adjoining the restaurant hang paintings of local artists who can display their work in exchange for volunteer help in the restaurant. Many high school students choose to do their community service at Mama's and have become interested in the teaching program.

R: When we asked Mama about student successes, she became very animated and took pride in sharing stories about Rocio, a single mom who 10 years ago lived in the projects with her son. She became a student and now has opened Mama's International Tamales in South Central Los Angeles. She is now a U.S. citizen, earned her GED, and recently purchased a home.

Z: Omar opened a tamale shop in Echo Park, Josie now makes a line of salsas, Guero is in the process of opening his own taco shop, and Lourdes learned how to make tamales, and now has a job in a restaurant. Kika Keith, who makes Gorilla Life green drink, was once homeless and now has her products in 33 Whole Foods Markets.

R: The outdoor sign next to Mama's Hot Tamales Café reads The Institute for Urban Research and Development, a tribute to Mama's dedication and earnest desire to see and achieve change for the better.

2122 West 7th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90057
Phone; 213-487-7474
FAX: 213-487-8475
Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Daily

Reviewed September 2009

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