Downtown is my favorite. Downtown gives you a feeling like you are a part of something much larger than yourself. It puts you in your place when you see how much is going on in a bustling few blocks. For a pretty big city, Mobile ranks among those on the somewhat smaller side. I often forget there is any sizable difference between Mobile and a small college town — say, Hattiesburg — until I’m standing near Bienville Square on a weekday during lunch.
I’m guaranteed to run into someone I know, which is the mark of a small town. I can’t find a place to park, which is indicative of a larger town. I can walk from one end of downtown to the other with little effort, a sign of a small town, but the face of something much bigger smiles on me when I notice that of the dozens of restaurants in a tiny radius, I will have trouble getting a table at any of them.
I like that. It’s a busy food scene these days. And I recently drove downtown on a sunny day that almost hinted of fall to meet friend and downtown worker Craig Simmons.
Craig has a day job, but is a budding rock ‘n’ roll guitar player currently training in that pre-Billy Gibbons blues-influence phase we all fondly go through and revisit from time to time. The man doesn’t have the hair for ‘80s glam. He’s a little bit Fender and a lot Gibson, just about as two-sided as this city, but he’s a smart kid with a good head on his shoulders. We expect a lot from him.
Thinking of places I’d not reviewed downtown, I shamefully realized (with a little help from Craig) that I’d never done Mama’s on Dauphin. It’s been around since 2003, kind of something I have taken for granted for too long. Let’s meet at noon.
Craig and I get there to face a short wait, as he held us a place in line, but we were seated in less than two minutes. I remembered this room. In the mid 1990s when I moved here, this place was a little coffee shop, café and bar called The Bean and Barley. It was the first place I ever played in the Port City. Tables rest on the former stage in the window where any passersby used to get a glimpse of my “good side” as I performed my acoustic set.
Craig and I weren’t fortunate enough to get the high rise, and were seated at a two-top along the wall.
This place is a lunch spot only, set up for sandwiches, salads and daily specials of meats and threes. That’s exactly what we were into today. You know you are getting tea ($1.95) in a place like this. Don’t fight it. We both had unsweetened, which I took straight. Craig reached for the packet of pink stuff, which I believe could be the reason he prematurely lost so much of his hair. He might want to consider laying off a bit.
We also both chose daily specials ($8.95) and expected great results. We got them.
My un-coiffed friend was all about the meatloaf. He had his choice of brown or tomato gravy. What monster orders brown gravy on meatloaf? This was a bit of a test to see whether our friendship would continue or not. He wisely chose the red. It came with mashed potatoes, of course, but he also was allowed two more sides. Black-eyed peas were a logical choice. Collards placed third. It was noted that Craig used the clear pepper sauce for the greens and Louisiana-style hot sauce for the peas.
I love Thanksgiving so much that I have loads of trouble passing up cornbread dressing. It’s my kryptonite. Today it came with my choice of fried or baked chicken, and I chose the latter. I asked for turnips, but the waitress said the turnip truck didn’t make it in today. Not wanting to copycat Craig, I let the greens slide and took on the squash casserole instead. Black-eyed peas were also a part of my diet and I added an extra side salad with blue cheese dressing.
Full disclosure: I wasn’t impressed with the squash casserole. It had a bit of a vinegar aftertaste that was off-putting, but everything else made up for it. The dressing was moist and spectacular, nice and salty next to the chicken. The peas were great with hot sauce and the side salad was exactly what I needed. Despite my feelings about the casserole, I still cleaned my plate. I even ate the (yellow) cornbread.
My morning walk was upward of four miles so it’s OK to have dessert, right? Craig thought so. Two pieces of pie ($3.95 each) found their way to our table with an extra black coffee for the rock star. Neither pie was served hot and both were very good. It was a tough decision as to whether or not the pecan beat out the chocolate truffle, but it did. I almost asked for ice cream, but was already pushing it.
So here’s what you’ve got. This place is generally soul food. You could also call it Southern or country cooking. No matter what you call it, there’s a reason the line is out the door for the lunch rush. I could eat there many times per week and never get the same thing twice.
Musicians rub elbows with CPAs, the elite dine with the common man, all sharing the bond of great classic food. Whether it’s a big city or a small town, you have to have a place like Mama’s on Dauphin. It’s a part of what makes downtown special.
Mama’s on Dauphin
220 Dauphin St.