CORN DOGS and curried green beans on the same menu is a little WTF, but know what? I'll take well-executed bastardization (AKA "fusion") over mediocre authenticity any day—it's usually a sign that a chef knows how to have fun.
Meet Mama San Soul Shack, a supes-casual corrugated tin-fronted restaurant with Southern and Asian influences. With its careful sourcing and a liberal, family-friendly vibe, it's a perfectly timed nod to the new St. Johns. The shack won't break any barriers of innovation, but it's a much-needed addition to the small collection of good restaurants up north.
Mama San is also reasonably priced and kid-friendly, just like St. Johns in general. Think $10 for a slightly busy but huge pork meatball banh mi with bonito flakes and pickled veggies, or two Nathan's corn dogs for $6 (also on the kids' menu with fries, $5). Our friends who live in St. Johns met us there one warm evening, with their cute-as-fuck one-year-old in tow; their next-door neighbors and their cute kid sat nearby. One child drummed on glasses with chopsticks, while others jetted in and out of a planter.
Chef and co-owner Chris Hopkins told Eater Portland that he's from the South and started cooking with more Asian influences after moving to Hawaii. The one-page menu keeps the regional focuses relatively separate: Wings ($8) are Southern deep-fried or grilled Thai-style (a tasty charred bird that bears no resemblance to the fish-sauce wings at Pok Pok). There are crispy, smoky six-spice pork rinds for $4 (so glad this is a thing at restaurants now) right above a bowl of house-made kimchi ($5).
Mama San is at its best when those elements blend together, especially in the banana leaf braised pork bowl ($13), a heaping helping of tender pork piled with collard greens, kimchi, pickled veggies, and nori, topped off with a runny egg. It's savory, sweet, and surprisingly complex for a dish that comes out of a kitchen the size of most food carts. There's similar success in the BBQ "Say-Tan" Bowl ($12): thin, crispy curls of seitan made onsite, with rice, kimchi, and a Korean BBQ sauce that's slightly oversweet.
This DIY ethos extends to the sodas, also made onsite in "purple," "pink," and "green" flavors. They can (and should) be transformed into grownup "dranks" ($7-8) with the addition of booze—go with the purple drank that blends hibiscus, orange zest, cinnamon, and clove soda with vodka. It makes the racket from that kid hammering away on a napkin holder much more tolerable.