Sugar Mamas is not going to win any beauty contests. A parade of sadness twitches past the tiny downtown cafe's windows on the way to the nearby drug treatment center. The walls are a sickly olive green, and its checkerboard linoleum floor is worn. There are only six tables, and a squirrelly-eyed old man with a Rick Rubin beard is camped out in one of them. Every other available surface is packed with plastic crates and boxes, shelves groaning with decorative cake stands, mismatched plates and flower vases. It looks…sticky.
Looks aren't everything. Sugar Mamas, run by sisters Zelda Nelson and Michelle Schmitt, is also one of the most genuine and friendly spots in town, serving mountains of great, cheap diner grub and baked-from-scratch goodies fortified with artery-clogging love. The Mamas started renting the space three years ago as a hub for their shortbread cookie business. "It kind of mushroomed from there," Nelson says.
Flaky biscuits are served with creamy, almost sweet sausage gravy ($4.50), and mellow pulled-pork hash is tossed with yams and crisp apples ($8.50). The spicy housemade pork, turkey and beef meatloaf, so juicy it almost falls apart at a fork's touch, is served with eggs or slapped between two slices of bread or inside a burrito with salsa, grilled as a panino or, best yet, wrapped with sautéed onions in a huge blanket of fresh Yukon gold hash browns, topped with sour cream and cheddar ($7.50).
"Pancake Monday" isn't a cute title—it's all they serve that day ($4-$7.50). Order the funky Power Cakes, packed with thick strands of sweet coconut, toasted walnuts, cranberries and bananas, and you won't eat the rest of the day. I prefer the Pan-Wich, which slips two fried eggs and sausage inside a pair of plate-sized cakes so golden and toothsome you can rip a hunk off with your fingers and dunk it in maple syrup, McMuffin-style. "Our pancakes are made with a special mix of whole-grain flours that we created for our own kids when they were little—to make them healthier," says Nelson, talking up the wonderful blueberry pancakes. "They were great little guinea pigs.... Children always are, you know?"
The kids are still eating the Mamas' cooking. Schmitt's adult son Devin works the counter most days. Nelson's daughter Emma Cooke, a big, blowsy woman who will make sure you order a maple bacon roll on Cinnamon Roll Friday even if you didn't know you wanted one, also works there. So do members of their extended, adopted family, including a kindly older gent partial to frosted lipstick and pink bandanas. ("We're more like strays they've taken in," jokes one server.)
Those cinnamon rolls ($3) are indeed only available Friday, and sometimes sell out by noon. The sisters wake up at 3 am to bake around 100 rolls every week. They are very good—like a food-court Cinnabon constructed by an Ozarks grandma. They taste as much of spice as sugar, the yeasty coils clogged with flows of cinnamon then topped with creamy glaze and a deluge of melted butter. The maple bacon rolls are even better. The pig lends a smoky kick to the buns and a crunch to every bite.
A warning: Don't head to Sugar Mamas unless you've got some time on your hands. It can take the staff 20 minutes to get your order from the open kitchen to your table less than 12 feet away. Then again, it'll take you at least three more hours to digest everything, so who's counting?
- Order this: Tart blueberry pancakes, meatloaf-stuffed hash browns.
- Best deal: Cinnamon or maple bacon roll ($3).
- Iâll pass: A choose-your-own mug station improves the ho-hum Mt. Hood Roasters coffeeâI got to drink from a cup decorated with copulating bears.
EAT: Sugar Mamas, 539 SW 13th Ave., 224-3323. Breakfast and lunch 7 am-3 pm Monday-Friday, 8 am-1 pm Saturday-Sunday. $.