Mama Coco Cantina blends Mexican food, culture

By SCOTT MIMS / Staff Writer 

CALERA — Los Angeles native Jessica Bargas couldn’t be happier to be in downtown Calera, Alabama. As the manager of new Mexican restaurant Mama Coco Cantina, she has come to love small-town life.

Bargas, who worked for owner Julio Peralta at one of his other restaurants, jumped at the chance to come to Mama Coco when she heard about the opportunity.

“We wanted Calera just because we’re a little bit more centered than just Birmingham. It gives people a choice whether they want to drive farther,” Bargas said. “We love the country, though. We love it.”

Mama Coco Cantina opened on Dec. 4, 2020, and made it official with a ribbon cutting on Dec. 10. It is located on U.S. 31 in the Family Dollar shopping center near historic downtown Calera.

While the eye-catching wall art draws some inspiration from the Disney movie “Coco,” the name Mama Coco has nothing to do with the film. It comes from a common nickname for Hispanic grandmothers.

“They always call grandmothers ‘Mama,’ so that’s where the name came from. In the Hispanic culture, the grandmothers live in the kitchen. Everything is handmade, like the tortillas or handmade tamales or bread,” Bargas said. “We feel as Hispanics, most of our family time happens in the dining room and in the kitchen. That was our bonding. We really tried getting this image where it’s our culture, the cooking in the kitchen and the family. Food is very important.”

And visitors to Mama Coco will find an extensive menu, including the signature Burrito Grande—an extra-large burrito filled with grilled chicken, grilled steak, shrimp, grilled bell peppers, grilled tomatoes, grilled onions, rice and beans, lettuce and sour cream topped with green sauce, red sauce and cheese sauce. Hint: Don’t try eating one by yourself—it’s best to share.

Other highlights include Durango’s steak—a ribeye with shrimp and steamed veggies—Mama’s Dip, which combines steak, chorizo, onions, whole beans and cheese dip; and Julio’s favorite, Mexican Spaghetti.

For seafood lovers, there’s the Mama Coco Fajita Ceviche, which consists of crab meat, fish, shrimp and pico de gallo.

“Mama’s Dip is one I have a lot of regulars come in and (ask for),” Bargas said. “Our margaritas as well; we have plenty of flavors.”

Despite opening in the middle of a pandemic, Bargas added that business is booming at the restaurant, which is already building a clientele of regulars and adds to the potential of Calera’s downtown evolving into an entertainment district.

“We have been nonstop. It has been a blessing for all of us, for the kitchen, for Julio, the servers, for everybody,” she said. “We have had tremendous positive response on Facebook. They have had so many phenomenal followers and responses about how good the food is.”

Owner Julio Peralta first came to the United States from Mexico when he was 18. He and his uncle, Miguel, have operated several restaurants in North Alabama and the Birmingham area.

“We heard from friends that it was a very good area to do business, plus Calera needed something like this,” Peralta said.

Based on the success of Mama Coco thus far, he already has plans to expand the dining area and possibly add karaoke or a mariachi band for special days such as Cinco de Mayo. He said Mama Coco tries to offer a different experience from other Mexican restaurants through its decorations and authentic flavors.

Peralta said his favorite time at the restaurant is on Friday nights.

“I like when it’s full, when all the people are talking, when everybody’s drinking, when everybody’s having a good time,” he said.

Calera Main Street Executive Director Jackie Batson said she tried the Mexican spaghetti and that it was delicious.

“I am thrilled to have Mama Coco in our downtown district. They have been so consistent with their quality and their service since day one, that it’s easy to visit often. I look forward to even more restaurants and activities for all of us to enjoy downtown as we continue to revitalize historic Calera,” she said.

Mama Coco Cantina is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. It is located at 8176 U.S. 31 and may be reached via Facebook or at 205-690-8994.