One of Pasadena’s few remaining soul food spots, Big Mama’s Rib Shack, will be closing their doors on July 20 following a change of ownership of the building they reside in.
First opened in 2002, Big Mama’s has established itself as a destination for soul food and live music with their Saturday night “Down and Dirty Blues.” The expansive Southern soul food menu is anchored by their signature Tennessee-style takes on fried chicken, ribs and catfish. They have Po’ boy sandwiches, hot links, sweet potato pies, and any Southern BBQ side one could imagine.
Soul food is one component in the long list of factors that will leave a hole in the city’s culinary landscape. The other draw is Big Mama’s own founder Dargin McWhorter; the gravel voiced 83-year-old Chattanooga native has become his own attraction. He came to California from Tennessee to get away from the segregated South with $12 in his pocket and not knowing a soul. With that small amount of cash and a drive to take care of his mother and siblings, he became a professional boxer, opened a recording studio and even co-produced a gold record. He played quarterback on his college football team, owned a car dealership and ran three restaurants all based on his mother’s recipes. Even in his 80s Dargin still has a John Wayne stature and looks like he could still throw one of the uppercuts that earned him a Golden Gloves championship more than a half-century ago. Dargin has stories, and guests are happy to take Dargin’s trip through history. As he sits and talks to one guest you can watch as a queue of guest’s eyes wait for Dargin to come to their table and regale them with his stories of his past lives.
When Dargin explains how he segued his Forrest Gump-like myriad careers and passions into the restaurant industry he offers an insight into Southern life, “Down South everyone makes their own sauce. They take pride in it,” Dargin says. Always enterprising, Dargin saw that Southern California was nearly devoid of the soul-food classics and realized that he could bring to the area what he learned from his mother — the titular “Big Mama” — at her Chattanooga restaurant.
As Dargin entertains guests, his daughter — Dargetta Carlisle — runs the day to day operations of the store. Sitting with the father-daughter pair is like watching a comedy duo of yesteryear. While Dargin shares his stories that his daughter has likely heard countless times, she chimes in with one-liners that break up her father’s train of thought with a deep laughter.
Dargetta was born and raised in Pasadena, a byproduct of Pasadena’s public schools. She said she cannot imagine herself living in any other city or, more importantly, reopening Big Mama’s in any other city. She holds out hope that they will be able to find another spot within city limits so that they can continue bringing her grandmother’s recipes to people who enjoy them. Even if they find a kitchen without a storefront where they can continue to cater and serve through delivery services, they want to continue.
There are layers of authenticity to Big Mama’s. The woman’s face that acts as the official mascot of Big Mama’s is not a stock image they bought the rights to. It is actually Dargin’s mother. It is a true McWhorter family affair between Dargin and Dargetta in the front of the house and Dargin’s wife Anita running the kitchen. They bake their pies and cornbread, and their fried chicken is done from scratch with their secret recipe batter.
So, before Big Mama’s shutters and the opportunity to visit one of the most authentic Southern experiences is gone, here are some recommendations to make your visit count. The famous fried chicken dinner ($12.75) is three pieces of chicken and two sides. The chicken is served the perfect shade of golden brown — while it has more than enough flavor to stand alone, it would not be true to the Southern roots if you did not pour some hot sauce on it. As for sides, the macaroni and cheese is served old school and simple, and hearty. There is no crunch or baked bread crumb top, just creamy, melted cheese, which is exactly what you want when nearly everything else has Cajun and Southern spices and batter. Big Mama’s has countless sides that aren’t found everywhere, so if you are like me, it may be hard to narrow it down. With how incredibly low priced the sides are, ordering more than the two that come with most entrees won’t be too big of a hit on your wallet. You cannot go wrong with the hush puppies (five for $3.50), candied yams ($3.75), collard greens ($3.75), black eyed peas ($2.75), or the fried okra ($3.75).
Big Mama’s has traditionally Southern dishes, with recipes that came from someone born and raised in the deep South, so one should try some of the most traditional dishes they serve to really get the full experience. The oxtails ($21.95) carry a higher price tag than some of the other items, but with how seasoned and tender they are after slow cooking, the dish is worth every penny. If you are craving some New Orleans style fried seafood, the Creole combo ($25.95) is where it is at, it comes with two fried shrimp, two fried oysters, two pieces of fried catfish and fish with hush puppies, plus your choice of two sides. It honestly does not get more Southern than that. Pair it with one of the Louisiana-brewed Abita beers that they serve and you’ll essentially walk out with a subtle Cajun drawl and a yearning for the bayou life. And trust me, once you’ve had it you’ll keep your eyes open for when Big Mama’s hangs up another shingle in town.
Big Mama’s Rib Shack
1453 N. Lake Ave.,