14 December, 2019, 00:10

Soul food’s the star at Mama Carey’s Kitchen & Catering

It’s more than family recipes that put the soul into Tisha Carey’s soul food.

Many students miss home cooking when they go off to college. Local football star Ka’Deem Carey was lucky enough to have his mom around to prepare his favorite foods while he attended the University of Arizona. Now Mama Carey’s Kitchen and Catering, a cozy spot specializing in traditional soul food with an East Coast flair, is letting a larger Tucson audience savor the home-cooked goodness that Ka’Deem enjoyed.

Cooking for a crowd

Tisha Carey may be new to the restaurant business, but she’s no stranger to cooking for a crowd.
When her kids were growing up, Carey often found herself feeding a full house including their classmates and teammates from Canyon de Oro High School in Northwest Tucson.

Tisha Carey with chicken and waffles at Mama Carey's Kitchen

Tisha Carey with chicken and waffles at Mama Carey’s Kitchen (Credit: Jackie Tran)

According to Carey, “I used to come home and they’d have cleaned out my kitchen! I had to make a rule that after ten o’clock the kitchen was closed. But they’d still sneak in.”

All that care and feeding paid off for son Ka’Deem Carey, who went on to play football for the U of A, the Chicago Bears, and, most recently, the Calgary Stampede. When Ka’Deem became a professional athlete, Tisha decided it was time to “go pro” as well, opening Mama Carey’s Catering in 2014.

Catering to a new crew

The catering business, originally based at local culinary incubator Cook Tucson, quickly grew a reputation for comfort food with unique regional spin.

Carey’s culinary background was eclectic: Along with soul food, it also included “a little bit of Puerto Rican food and New Jersey food, like pork rolls and cheesesteak,” Carey said. When asked what most sets her cooking apart from that of other local soul food chefs, it’s that family touch that Carey believes really makes the difference, as well the less is more philosophy of East Coast-based cookery, which tends to include fewer ingredients and simple seasoning.

“Until I came to Arizona,” said Carey, ”I’d never heard of adding sugar to collard greens! Back home we always cooked things more simple and it was always really good. And that’s how I make the food here.”

A new larger community

Eventually, the catering business outgrew its tiny co-op space and, five years in, Carey decided it was time to take the next step, a full-fledged restaurant. She enlisted most of her family to help run the business, including her children, her aunt, and her mother, Deborah Atkins, who first taught young Tisha how to cook traditional foods like collard greens, black-eyed peas, and chicken and waffles.

Chicken and waffles at Mama Carey's Kitchen

Chicken and waffles at Mama Carey’s Kitchen (Credit: Jackie Tran)

In September 2019, Mama Carey’s Kitchen and Catering opened to the public.

Located in the back of a modest convenience store near the U of A campus, the restaurant is humble but homey. And it’s often packed. Soon after opening up the new space, Carey realized she’d gained a new set of “kids” to care for. “My goal is to serve my customers from five years of being in the catering business, but also this new community of the students.”

The student-friendly menu includes simple lunch fare like hot dogs, burgers, and sandwiches as well as breakfast burritos and bagels for early morning diners. It also features East Coast-style pork rolls and one of the more authentic cheesesteaks in town, cooked Jersey style with thinly sliced ribeye, grilled onions, and a perfectly melted custom blend of cheeses.

Soul food still central

But the soul food on the dinner menu is the star of the show, with favorites like savory golden brown fried okra, rich and creamy homestyle macaroni and cheese, decadent sweet potato pie, and the restaurant’s signature dish, the fried catfish, a recipe that Carey learned from her family’s food traditions.

“I was doing a catering event and I wanted to offer chicken, but also something a little different,” Carey said. “Fried catfish was something that other soul food vendors weren’t offering. I’m the type of person to try new food and think ‘oh, this is good’ but then start wondering what I can do to put my own unique taste to it. That’s what I did with the catfish and now my kids always want to eat the catfish when they come here. I’m always experimenting and trying to make things even better.”

Menu at Mama Carey's Kitchen

Menu at Mama Carey’s Kitchen (Credit: Jackie Tran)

Another expansion — and a big heart

Mama Carey’s Kitchen is happily settling into its new space and looking forward to building a new customer base in these campus-adjacent digs, but Carey already looks forward to growing even more, with the next step being a stand-alone restaurant.

“If things keep going well, we’d like to expand. I’ve definitely been thinking of moving in that direction in the future. We’d love to have more space and a sit-down, dine-in atmosphere,” said Carey.

In the meantime, in addition to serving her catering clients and the students on campus, Carey is also helping the larger community of Tucsonans in need.

“One new thing we’re doing is twice a month, feeding the homeless in our parking lot. We’ll be handing out chips and hot dogs and bottles of water and taking donations from the community for things those folks need. Like socks, now that it’s starting to get cold! We’re just in the process of getting that started,” Carey said.

Clearly it’s more than family recipes that put the soul—and heart—into Tisha Carey’s soul food.

Mama Carey’s Kitchen and Catering is located inside the Metro Wildcat store at 501 N. Park Ave., near the intersection of Park Avenue and Sixth Street. For the menu, hours and information, call (520) 622-1973 or visit mamaccatering.com.

For more information on dining in the University area, read our September 2019 article Guide to 39 local spots around University of Arizona to grab a bite.

Julie Jennings Patterson is a second generation Tucson freelance writer and journalist, who grew up helping her dad write restaurant reviews. She's also a musician and community radio DJ.

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