Like Mama Makes

My Rouses Everyday, September & October 2018

Lake Charles is gaining a reputation as a foodie town, with the local farmland and sea life practically conspiring to deliver farm-to-table experiences. Choosing a restaurant in that environment is daunting; the choices are plentiful and all good, and there just aren’t enough meals in the day. One restaurant, however, seems to have the loudest local buzz: Mama Reta’s Kitchen on Broad Street. Every restaurant has regulars. This one has an active fan base. One year, Christmas fell on a Friday and the community apparently fell into a funk because it meant the restaurant might not be open on Sunday. She opened. It made the local news.

So I had to try it. Mama Reta’s serves lunch exclusively, Sunday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The restaurant is unobtrusive, set amid the typically charming architecture of the city. You might spot it by the awning striped in red and white, but more likely, you’ll see the steady stream of patrons entering eagerly, and leaving reluctantly. My family and I visited on a Sunday at 2:30 (there was a minor accident on I-10, which added an hour to our trip since everyone had to slow down and get a good look). Despite it being pretty late for lunch, the place was packed, and diners continued streaming in after us.

The menu is solid and enticing: distinctly Southern, definitively soul food. We were promised home cooking, and here it was. A daily special headlines the lunch service — fried chicken and cornbread dressing the day we were there — and Mama Reta serves a selection of Southern staples like po-boys and fried fish as well. Entrées are served with a veggie side (a choice of smothered okra, potato salad, green beans and black-eyed peas, among others) and for dessert, there’s a small cake of the day.

The restaurant is inviting and whimsical — the exposed-brick walls are adorned with strings of lights and signs with sayings. Mama Reta visited each table when we were there, and as she moved from table to table, the place lit up. She is known for this, and seemed to know just about everyone there. She spotted us immediately as first-timers and welcomed us warmly before dashing back to the kitchen. She was serving home cooking, and she made us feel at home.

The food came out quickly. The fried chicken was nicely seasoned and cooked to perfection. The cornbread dressing was bursting with flavor, and I eyed my family warily, hoping desperately that nobody would want to try it. (They did, and then I had to stop them from eating all of it!) My daughter loved the chicken tenders — wouldn’t stop talking about them — which is high praise indeed, as she’s an expert. It is the only thing she ever eats at every restaurant she goes to. My wife had the shrimp po-boy. She offered me a bite and I almost refused, because if you’ve tasted one po-boy you’ve tasted them all, right? Wrong, as I learned. I managed only to offer an, “Oh wow…” in response. This was shrimp po-boy as religious experience. Even if you never knew your grandmother, this is what you just know her cooking tasted like.

I’m not proud of how ravenously we ate. Mama Reta, on a second swing through the dining room, laughed about the fact that there was no more talking at our table. And we understood the local buzz because, suddenly, it was like we were regulars, too. It’s rare when a restaurant lives up to its reputation, and rarer still when a restaurant’s reputation is this good. (It has five stars on Yelp, which I didn’t even think was possible.) And as home cooking, it caused me to cycle through feelings of alarm — how could my home ever compare to this? — and despair — I would have protected those green beans with my table knife, so what does that say about my home? — and finally, the comfort that at least in the warm atmosphere of Mama Reta’s Kitchen, I could call it home temporarily. (And then, panic — I live two whole hours away!)

Mama Reta’s Kitchen recently opened a second location in the nearby Westlake area. The locals demanded it, and it’s easy to see why. You can feel the love in this food. And as we were leaving, I realized it made perfect sense to me that Lake Charles would celebrate a restaurant being open two days after Christmas: They could stop eating the food they cooked at home and finally have some proper home cooking.