A Tale of Two Mothers

Published in Gourmet Live 05.09.12
Jane and Michael Stern salute two “mothers”—one sweet, one sassy, both no-nonsense—serving up home cooking any kid would be lucky to find on their dinner plate

“Home cooking like Mom used to make” is a curious boast from a restaurant. If your own mother couldn’t boil water, why on earth would you want to eat at such a place? Even those of us blessed with mothers who used to put hot meals on the table every night still might hesitate to suit up, go out, and proffer a credit card for fish sticks or sloppy Joes or any other such American family-dinner-table cliché. And moms themselves probably prefer to eat in a place better known for its superb rack of lamb than for telling customers to sit up straight and to eat all their broccoli. In A Walk on the Wild Side, a 1956 novel set in the underbelly of New Orleans, Nelson Algren put it bluntly: “Never eat at a place called Mom’s.” (That was coupled with two other admonitions: “Never play cards with a man called Doc” and “Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”)

In the course of our travels, we have found two significant exceptions to Algren’s mom embargo, although the two restaurants couldn’t be more different: Mom’s of Salina, Utah, and Mother’s in New Orleans. Salina is a dusty old cowboy town with a few thousand citizens; Mom’s is on its Main Street, in the same corner brick building where it’s been serving blue plate meals since 1929. New Orleans is many things, but a sleepy desert crossroads, like Salina, it most definitely is not. And just as Mom’s meat-and-potatoes menu reflects the slow-loping personality of the Utah town around it, Mother’s embodies the ebullience of the Big Easy, where life in general is unpredictable and no meal is ordinary. In its own way, each restaurant offers a perspicuous goût de terroir.

A Mother a Cowboy Would Love

We included Mom’s of Utah in the very first edition of Roadfood (1977), giving it only one star out of four at the time because there was no Mom in evidence; and service, by a gaggle of goofy teenagers, was sloppy. But the hamburgers were hand-formed and oozed savory juices and the coconut pie was fine, and, frankly, there weren’t a whole lot of other dining options in central Utah. “Next time around,” we wrote, “we’ll peek in the kitchen first. If Mom is there, we’d give it another try.”

When we returned about 15 years later, Mom wasn’t in the kitchen—she was out front, overseeing the entire operation from an office desk planted right in the dining room. Owner and host Carolyn Jensen (no relation to the original Mom) ran a tight ship. We were impressed by the efficiency of coffeepot-armed waitresses who wore blue uniforms that matched the aqua upholstered booths; and more important, we had learned enough about Southwestern food to better appreciate a truly regional meal. Chicken-fried steak with pepper-cream gravy, biscuits with gravy… Heck, nearly everything with gravy was (and remains) exemplary. Pies at Mom’s are road-food paradigms: lovely apple and cherry and custards, blueberry sour cream that is an extraordinary balance of sweet fruit with dairy luxury, and, on rare and happy occasion, cherry sour cream, too.

It was on that return visit to Mom’s that we first tasted the kind of scone that is unique to Utah. Completely unlike the dense, hockey-puck-shaped, English-style quick bread scone that’s served in most of the U.S., a Utah scone is a flat disk of puffy, yeast-risen fry bread—pliable, crisp-edged, and tender within. It’s no doubt related to the sopaipilla of New Mexico, but customarily it is made with sweeter dough. All meals at Mom’s come with kettle-hot scones accompanied by the Beehive State’s favorite condiment, honey butter.

When Carolyn Jensen retired in 2008, the restaurant was taken over by Fred Pannunzio, a former game warden and regular customer who bought it on a whim. Mr. Pannunzio, who replaced the restaurant’s doll-collection decor with hunting and fishing pictures, is more manly than motherly, and he recently added beer to the menu, but he maintains Mom’s as a friendly stop for travelers in search of small-town charm and ingenious Southwestern café cuisine.

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