Like the group from which the restaurant’s name is derived, the crew at The Mamas & the Tapas are a bunch of young dreamers seeking to change how Columbia eats. The menu is based on comfort food — those staples reminiscent of home and mom’s cooking — but served in small sharable bites.
Serving the food tapas-style, an ode to Spanish appetizers, allows guests to share food and have a more engaging meal experience.
“We wanted to do something different that’s not in The Vista,” said general manager Megan Glance.
Glance said that she, head chef Henry Yoo and other staff members spent late nights thinking about the direction they wanted to take the restaurant. The group of friends decided that it had to be something to rival the usual fare offered in most of the bars in the district.
The Mamas & the Tapas took over the spot that occupied The Big Ugly, a bar that served up live music, happy-hour specials and Cajun-style fare, at 931 Senate St.
The Mamas & the Tapas menu winds its way across the world, leaning on notable favorites from different regions. There are Creole cakes, reminiscent of Lowcountry cooking and New Orleans flavors. Potato pancakes are topped with a Creole gravy of shrimp, sausage and corn.
Then there’s the tomato pie, an Italian-inspired pizza with cheese and onions, paired with an avocado salad.
In a nod to Yoo’s Korean heritage, bulgogi is served as a small tapas plate or as an entree. The Korean dish consists of thinly-sliced marinated meat. In the case of The Mamas & the Tapas, it’s a spicy grilled Korean pork or garlic pepper sweet beef.
Yoo serves it with a side of fried rice, his way of making what might be an unfamiliar dish a bit more recognizable to guests’ palates.
The menu makes a distinction between small plates, known as “mama’s tapas,” and entree-sized portions called “papa’s tapas.” Yoo designed the mama’s tapas to encourage sharing. The fettuccine, for example, consists of three scoops of the pasta lined up side by side on a long plate.
“Everything is recognizable but still different,” Yoo said. “Everything is easy to share.”
The papa’s tapas items offer a variety of meat-centered dishes like smoked barbecue ribs, Filet Mignon and southern schnitzel — a deep-fried chicken cutlet served with mashed potatoes and Yoo’s own mushroom gravy.
Glance said one of their signature dishes are their wings, which are twice-fried, tossed in a Korean-inspired chile sauce and served with ranch dip.
Yoo was given full creative control over the menu, a new experience for him. While he is a kitchen veteran, his first cooking job happened by chance.
When he was 16 years old, Yoo took a job washing dishes at the Osaka Inn in Lexington. One day, a line cook called in sick, giving Yoo the opportunity to cook and be taught to make traditional Japanese cuisine like sushi and hibachi.
Food was also a family affair. His parents owned the Whattaburger in West Columbia and the Primo’s Italian Eatery in Columbia.
The now 25-year-old chef is taking on an ambitious challenge as a head chef of a start-up restaurant. He admitted that it was hard transitioning from working as a line cook and taking orders, but he feels confident about the new role.
In fact, confidence is mantra that the young team lives by. Glance is only 24, and the rest of the staff are made up of young 20-somethings. Walking into the establishment, indie rock music blares from an iPod that’s hooked up to the loudspeaker, Glance said. The restaurant’s vibe is reminiscent of a young professional and older college crowd looking for a place to settle on a good meal before heading out on the town. Glance hopes to attract that kind of crowd, though she invites anyone to come by.
The Mamas & the Papas has been open only a few weeks since early October, when they had a soft opening with family and friends. For more information, including a menu and hours of operation, check them out on Facebook.