The Biz Beat: Cajun eats and live music define Mama Kin’s success
Mama Kin in San Jose's SoFA district features live music, from local bands to open mic nights. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    The first thing you’re likely to notice as you enter Mama Kin in downtown San Jose is the live band onstage, or the line of hopefuls with guitars signed up for the open mic if it’s Tuesday.

    Music is essential to Mama Kin’s atmosphere—appropriate for a venue named after an Aerosmith song—as is the selection of Cajun appetizers and entrees, and the craft cocktails named for dead rock and jazz stars.

    “Mama Kin is all about the musicians,” bartender Luis Sanchez told San José Spotlight. “We have a special love for live music, and this is a good place to listen to new talents and artists of every kind, from rock and roll to jazz to folk.”

    Mama Kin bartender Luis Sanchez said the San Jose bar and restaurant is focused on music. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    Sanchez came across the street from the Continental Bar with Mama Kin owner Andrew Saman, who had been the general manager. Saman, a native of Florida, has about 28 years of experience in the restaurant business, starting in New York right after graduating from high school.

    “I worked at a place called Live Bait near Washington Square,” he said. “On my third day, the owner asked if anyone would volunteer to clean up this big garbage room. Nobody raised their hand, so I raised mine. And I cleaned the heck out of it. Three months later, at 19, I was managing the place.”

    Bouncing from restaurant to restaurant, Saman ended up at Cafe Stritch, the current site of Mama Kin. He worked there for over three years before the business shut down permanently during the pandemic.

    “I thought Cafe Stritch was always about the culture of San Jose, with great music and great food,” Saman said. “After it closed, I told the old owner, Michael Borkenhagen, that I was available if he ever needed a partner. He told me, ‘I don’t know about a partner. If I’m out, I’m all the way out, but you’ll be the first person I’ll talk to if I change my mind.’ I was working at the Continental when I heard people talk about it maybe being up for sale.”

    He got a call from Borkenhagen a few days later, and they sealed the deal. Saman said he knew the place would need what he calls the trifecta: food, alcohol and entertainment.

    “If you are missing one of those three things, people will find an excuse to go out and find the third thing,” Saman said. “I wanted to open it up to different kinds of music, not just jazz. I like RnB and soul, all that kind of stuff. When we did that at Cafe Stritch, I noticed a livelier atmosphere and a really great vibe.”

    Saman pushed the stage toward the front of the building, opening up the restaurant-level seating. It also provided a better view for the customers seated in a mezzanine area above the center of the building.

    “That is our VIP section,” said server Bryan Pullito. “We have two couches available on a first-come, first-served basis, or you can reserve them online. Sometimes people reserve the whole area, and it always looks like fun.”

    Mama Kin workers Bryan Pullito, Frankie Almondia and Joe Phan. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    Pullito’s favorite dish is the Smoked Chicken and Cajun Hot Sausage Jambalaya, with seasoned rice and a “whole lot of the Holy Trinity—bell peppers, onions and celery.”

    It’s a good choice. As with all of Mama Kin’s menu, the emphasis is on flavor and balance rather than just heat. A little warmth hits the back of the throat, mostly from the sausage, but it is at comfort-food levels and makes for a delicious dish.

    Smoked Chicken and Cajun Hot Sausage Jambalaya. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    The same is true of the fall-off-the-bone tender Baby Back Ribs, coated in a pineapple-based BBQ sauce and served with caramelized pineapple chunks. The sweetness is a note, not the note. And the sauce served with the Wildflower Honey and Garlic Wings looks at first glance like a standard Buffalo sauce, but is much more subtle, with compelling and complex sweet and heat elements played out over a slightly vinegary base. It’s delightful and could easily accompany most of the dishes on the menu.

    Of course, there is a burger, the Last Note, which is reminiscent of an old-time diner hamburger. It might seem a workman-like addition to the Cajun-heavy menu, but the combination of a grass-fed beef patty and special sauce served on an in-house baked bun is about as flavorful and honest as a burger can get.

    The Last Note burger. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    The switch to Cajun food came a few weeks ago with the hiring of Head Chef Glenn “Gator” Thompson, who Saman said is well-known for what he does and has built a following.

    “I was interested because I love Cajun food, but never thought to put it here. He came down and cooked some dishes for me, and that pretty much did it.”

    The third leg of Saman’s trifecta is Sanchez’s craft cocktail creations. One of the house specialties is the Piece of My Heart, which is made with hibiscus, vodka and Luxado bitters, all challenging your taste buds for your attention. The Dream a Little Dream of Me is made with gin, cherry angostura, egg white and violet bitters, which combine into a lofty and delicate drink as if you were indeed drinking a dream.

    Dream a Little Dream of Me cocktail. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    Saman is still working on the menu—desserts will be introduced next week—but he is content with how things are going so far and with the response from residents.

    “Particularly with things like the open mics, everybody supports each other,” he said. “You don’t have musicians doing their five or 10 minutes and leaving. It is the kind of environment where the entertainment and the food make people want to stay. It is kind of a win-win for everybody.”

    Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected]

    Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley. Know a business you’d like to see featured? Let us know at [email protected]

    Mama Kin Bar, Restaurant and Live Music Club​

    374 S. First St. in San Jose

    (408) 664-9303

    Open Tuesday-Saturday, 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.

    Website

    Instagram

    Parking can be a challenge on busy nights, but there are affordable parking lots nearby, including one right behind the venue and another on Second Street.

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