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Mama Kin and the rebirth of cool in downtown San Jose

Andrew Saman’s band was playing the SoFA Street Fair in downtown San Jose a few years back when he heard the wailing sounds of a saxophone drifting along South First Street. He followed his ears, and they led him to Howard Wiley, who was on stage at Cafe Stritch, the jazz club and restaurant that had become a touchstone in the SoFA district.

“I just watched from the window and was blown away. I thought, there’s some serious music happening in downtown San Jose,” he said. “Since then I’ve always associated this space with the culture of San Jose, with a lot of artists and a lot of musicians.”

Customers filed into Mama Kin on its first day of operation in downtown San Jose on Friday, June 3, 2022. (Sal Pizarro/Bay Area News Group) 

So, it’s only fitting that Wiley performed again in that location Friday night as Saman opened Mama Kin in the old home of Cafe Stritch, which didn’t reopen its doors after the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to close.

The new Mama Kin wont be that radical a departure from the old Cafe Stritch. The stage has been repositioned and the decor has been spruced up with new banquettes and a copper-accented bar top. The menu will feature American food with a Latin infusion, Saman said, but some Stritch favorites like mac and cheese and the grilled cheese/tomato soup combo have stuck, as has the emphasis on creating the trifecta of good entertainment, good food and good drinks.

“I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years, and I’ve never had this much momentum and buildup before I opened a place,” said Saman, 47, who served as manager at three downtown spots — The Continental, the Ritz nightclub and Cafe Stritch.

Mama Kin will be first and foremost a place for music when it’s open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tuesdays will be devoted to vinyl, Wednesdays will feature local bands (and the return of the popular “Go Go Gone Show” with Mighty Mike McGee once a month), Thursdays will be dedicated to jazz, while Friday and Saturday nights will open the music up a bit more.

Andrew Saman, co-owner of Mama Kin, on the restaurant and music venue's first day of operation in downtown San Jose on Friday, June 6, 2022. (Sal Pizarro/Bay Area News Group)
Andrew Saman, co-owner of Mama Kin, on the restaurant and music venue’s first day of operation in downtown San Jose on Friday, June 6, 2022. (Sal Pizarro/Bay Area News Group) 

Even the name Mama Kin evokes the places that used to be there under the ownership of the Borkenhagen family: Eulipia, the restaurant that had a long run from 1977 to 2012, drew its name from Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Song of the Eulipions”; Cafe Stritch, which opened in 2013, was named for Kirk’s famous straight alto sax. Saman said Mama Kin is named for the Aerosmith song that has always been a favorite of his.

“I wanted a name that had music tied into it but also a homey, nurturing kind of vibe,” Saman said. “And then ‘Mama Kin’ came up on my playlist.”

A DECADE OF SUPPORT: Applications are open for the Leigh Weimers Emerging Artists Awards, which is celebrating its 10th year of providing unrestricted grants to Santa Clara County artists who are worthy of recognition but haven’t yet made it big. Four artists are expected to receive the $5,000 awards, which are named in memory of Leigh Weimers, who championed the arts throughout his 40-year career as a columnist at the Mercury News.

Recipients of the award have included actor Tasi Alabastro and playwright-director Jeffrey Lo, who were both part of City Lights Theatre Company’s recent production of “Vietgone” (and City Lights’ current show, “Waiting for Next,” was written by Lo).

And Kenneth Tan, an award recipient in 2017, released a memoir and art book, “Crescenciana,” chronicling the artistic collaboration the second-generation Filipino American enjoyed with his grandmother, Crescenciana Tan. In an email he sent to the committee behind the Weimers Awards — which I am a member of — Tan said it was an important step on its path to publication. “I felt like our work had been seen and validated, and I was encouraged to see it through and finish all of my grandmother’s paintings,” he said.

Tan’s book is available on his website, www.lolaxkenneth.com, at some independent bookstores and at the Santa Clara City Library and Berkeley Public Libraries. And plans are in the works for it to be available at the San Jose Museum of Art gift shop, too. You can get more details about the Weimers Awards and apply before the June 30 deadline at www.weimersawards.com.

POLITICS OF PRESERVATION: Historic preservation shouldn’t be a top issue when deciding who should be San Jose’s next mayor or a member of the City Council — the city has many more pressing issues at hand to consider in the June 7 primary election. But the candidates’ thoughts on preservation do provide some interesting insight into their backgrounds, which is why I was fascinated by a recent Preservation Action Council report that surveyed candidates for mayor and council on the issue.

One of my takeaways is that whoever the next mayor is, historic Diridon Station will likely have that person on their side. Nearly all of the mayoral hopefuls who responded to the survey mentioned the 87-year-old Caltrain station — which is expected to be part of a major transportation hub in the next decade — as one of the “Endangered Eight” structures in San Jose that resonates most with them. You can see the full report at www.preservation.org/2022-candidates. And don’t forget to get your ballot in by June 7.

EXHIBIT’S FAREWELL DURING PRIDE: After a year on display at History Park’s Arbuckle Gallery, the exhibition, “Coming Out: 50 Years of Queer Resistance and Resilience in Silicon Valley,” is coming to a close at the end of June, which is Pride month. And there’s a June 5 farewell party planned for the exhibition, which was a collaboration between History San Jose and the BAYMEC Foundation.

The festivities, from 1 to 3:30 p.m., will include lawn games, food trucks and performances by Ensamble Folclórico Colibrí, Silicon Valley Shakespeare, a drag performance by Kendoll and Tori Tia, plus queer storytellers from Teatro Visión. It is free to attend, and the exhibition will remain on display through June 26. History Park is at Kelley Park at Phelan Avenue and Senter Road.

DRIVE-IN BIRTHDAY PARTY: San Jose’s Capitol Drive-In — along with others in the West Wind chain — is celebrating the 90th anniversary of drive-in movies Monday, June 6, with a special throwback event that includes $5 admission ($1 for kids 5-11) and — in addition to blockbusters like “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” — a lineup of ’70s and ’80s classics “Back to the Future,” “The Goonies” and “Grease.”  Check the showtimes at www.westwinddi.com.

There’s only one problem with this celebration: Every source I found says that the Camden Drive-In in New Jersey is widely accepted to have been the nation’s first when it opened June 6, 1933 (even the West Wind Drive-In release cites the date). And that makes this Monday the 89th anniversary, not the 90th. But nobody ever complained about an early birthday party, right? Besides, they can just do again next year.

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