Good for the Soul

Tucked inside a convenience store, Mama Carey’s serves up catfish, fried chicken and something called a pork roll

Soul Queen: Tisha “Mama” Carey
Soul Queen: Tisha “Mama” Carey
Thanks to all those food focused cable shows, restaurants serving great grub located in unexpected neighborhoods are now destinations for those willing to check them out. Some of the best fare in major metropolitan cities just happen to reside in strip malls, old gas stations and renovated warehouses.

One such operation is Mama Carey's Kitchen, which just so happens to be housed in the Metro Wildcat Convenience store just off the UA campus. It is soul food. Not barbecue, but authentic down-home, old-school American soul food. Barbecue has roots with Spanish explorers returning from the Caribbean where they cooked over a "barbacoa," a slow indirect heat, whereas soul food arrived during colonial America, where slaves made do with the meager ingredients of their daily rations to be as delicious as possible. Soul food, like any kind of regional cuisine, has evolved through the years but as tradition dictates, you shouldn't fix what isn't broken.

And that is exactly what Tisha "Mama" Carey has brought to Tucson from her hometown of Trenton, New Jersey; traditional, unbroken comfort food that will definitely fix you up.

Normally, when you think of soul food, you think of the Deep South and not so much the capital city of New Jersey. Turns out some of the best food can be found in corner markets, much like Mama Carey's Kitchen, due to the cheaper rent and established foot traffic.

Carey has transferred one of the staples from Trenton in the form of a local delicacy called a pork roll, which is Spam and bologna served inside a hard bread roll, with either white or yellow cheddar cheese. If you want, you can top it with an over-easy egg, a messy addition that makes it a mutant breakfast sandwich. After having one of these greasy, salty wonders, I could feel the Jersey vibe wash over me.

Carey was studying to be a nurse, but with four kids to feed, she found herself always toiling in the kitchen. Her food was so popular that friends and family began asking if she could open her own restaurant. That was a mighty prospect, so Carey decided to start slower and began a catering business. With the help of her son Ka'Deem, who played football at the UA then moved on to the NFL playing for the Bears, she went from cooking with her home's kitchen pots and pans to actual professional catering equipment.

But people wanted more. Her soul food was just too good to be kept for certain special occasions. That's when the space inside the convenience store opened up. In the middle of the summer heat, Mama Carey's Kitchen opened to the delight of soul food fans everywhere.

Carey's claim to culinary fame is her catfish, a soul food fundamental. Seasoned with handed-down family ingredients, the catfish is flaky, slightly spicy and extremely satisfying. Try pairing it with her macaroni or potato salad because both are creamy and bright.

With her Trenton roots, Carey has also included a cheesesteak on the menu. This is easily one of the best cheesesteak options in Tucson, thanks to some secret ingredients Carey would not indulge.

Because of popular demand, Carey also cooks up fried chicken that's a solid addition to the menu.

The only seating available are some benches out front or a curb in the parking lot. With the growing success of Mama Carey's Kitchen, she is on the hunt for for an actual sit-down restaurant. Once that happens, Carey said she will develop a menu to feature even more soul food options. For now, don't be afraid to order food from inside a bodega near the university. Your soul will thank you for it.

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