By Anna Grace Moore 

Photos by Untold Imagery

If food tastes better when cooked with care, those who care for one another make the best meals–hands down. For uncle and nephew duo, Miguel and Julio Peralta, expanding their popular, Calera-based restaurant, Mama Coco Cantina, to Vestavia Hills was a no-brainer when the opportunity presented itself.

Located in the former Metro Diner space off of Montgomery Highway, Mama Coco Cantina officially opened its doors on Nov. 7, 2022. Mama Coco Cantina’s general manager Jessica Vargas says the success of the Calera location propelled the Peraltas to venture their business into an untapped market, helping diversify the foodie scene in Vestavia Hills.

Although, the Peraltas are no stranger to the restaurant industry. Miguel, a native of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, immigrated to the United States–first to Tennessee–where he began working in the restaurant scene, learning the ins-and-outs of how to run a successful business.

He later moved to Hanceville, Alabama, where he opened his first restaurant, Lupita’s–whose moniker references his grandmother, Guadalupe ‘Lupita’ Peralta. Miguel soon invited more of his family to help him run his business, and little by little, multiple members of his family were helping him expand into cities throughout Alabama.

Within the Peralta family, members of the family opened up new restaurants in Cullman, Gardendale, Jacksonville, Hoover, Calera and more before the family set its sights on Vestavia Hills–making Mama Coco Cantina the family’s 20th restaurant.

“What I appreciate is that they’re really humble,” Jessica says of Miguel and Julio. “They look out for their employees, and working with them has been great. It feels like I’ve known them my whole life.”

Jessica, who first applied at Margaronas Cantina in Homewood, was persuaded to interview for a part-time server position at Mama Coco Cantina, which had not yet opened in Calera. She not only got the job, but she also quickly worked her way up in the ranks, becoming general manager of both the Calera and Vestavia Hills locations.

“They opened their doors to me,” Jessica says. “When I first met them, the staff was all related–uncles, cousins. They’ve taught me what everything was about.”

The foundation of each business, she says, is family–the reason their businesses have seen such success. Mama Coco Cantina, although not having anything to do with the popular Disney film, pays tribute to Lupita, who was affectionately known as “mama” to so many in her community.

Jessica says the way the staff treats one another and customers, the menus and the overall atmosphere of each restaurant stems from how Lupita fostered a culture of fellowship, enriching the lives of everyone who was blessed to know her. When a customer strolls in, they are immediately greeted with enduring smiles and hearty “hello’s” before making their way to their seats.

At first glance, Mama Coco Cantina’s menu offers an eclectic variety of authentic, Mexican dishes. Even the pickiest of eaters will find something they enjoy.

“I just want people to open up more to our culture–our menu–I feel like if they stepped out of their comfort zone, they might really enjoy it,” Jessica says.

Appetizers such as the Mexican dip–a combination of pico de gallo, ground beef or chicken and cheese sauce–is great to warm up one’s palate. The ceviche, which is comprised of crab meat, fish, shrimp and pico de gallo all cooked in lime juice, paired with any of the house margaritas, never disappoints.

A great choice for lunch, the shrimp tacos’ meat is sautéed with chipotle sauce and served with white rice and a side salad. Seafood lovers will also love the filet riviera, which is tilapia over a shrimp brochette with steamed vegetables, white rice, sour cream and tomatoes.

Vegetarians, on the other hand, will appreciate the menu’s accommodations for their tastes, including the one-mushroom or one-spinach quesadillas. A fan favorite among this crowd is the chimichanga–a flour tortilla filled with steam and grilled vegetables under a thick layer of cheese sauce and served with lettuce, sour cream, tomatoes, guacamole, rice and beans.

Uniquely, Mama Coco Cantina does not just serve authentic cuisine, but the staff also cooks in the traditional ways, paying homage to their culture’s traditions. Several meals are made in molcajetes, which Jessica says are volcanic stone bowls.

These bowls are used for grinding spices and tenderizing meats. This tradition elevates the richness in flavors, helping one to taste every region of the world of which the meal’s seasonings originate.

The steak huasteco–a house favorite–along with the rodeo steak and smoked asada prove to be some of the most popular items on the menu, whose flavors are only strengthened by Mama Coco Cantina’s traditional ways of cooking.

Whether one stops in for lunch or dinner, he is sure to leave feeling both full and fulfilled, too, which is exactly how the Peralta family hopes to influence the community. Having customers sample authenticity at its finest and garner a greater appreciation for Mexican culture will allow them to view the world through a kinder lens–just as the original “mama coco,” Lupita, strived to do.

Visit Mama Coco Cantina at 1088 Montgomery Highway, seven days a week. It is open Sunday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Follow Mama Coco Cantina Vestavia Hills on Facebook to view the full menu online.


Chef’s Picks

Piña Caribbean
-Stuffed pineapple filled with white rice, grilled shrimp, grilled fish, crab meat, steamed vegetables and topped with mozzarella cheese.

-Shrimp cooked in seasoned lime juice and paired with spicy peppers, cucumbers and red onions.

Camarones Chipotle
-Shrimp cooked in chipotle sauce and served with white rice, lettuce, sour cream and tomatoes.

Coco Blue
-Alcoholic beverage made with Malibu rum, coconut cream and blue curacao.