East County’s Julian may have the well-earned reputation for pie capital of San Diego County, but Mama Kat’s Restaurant and Pie Shop in San Marcos gives it a run for the money.
That propensity rears its head in the fullest during the Thanksgiving season, which sees Mama Kat’s make about 2,000 pies in-house ordered by its customers to take home for meals with their friends and family. Mama Kat’s founder and CEO Michael Herrera said that the seasonal favorite pie flavor is, perhaps unsurprisingly, pumpkin.
“The most popular flavor is pumpkin and we make over 1,000 pounds of pumpkin pie filling per season. After that apple, apple cranberry and apple boysenberry reign,” Herrera told The Coast News. “All are available in our tradition sugar crust or topped with our Dutch topping, made from old fashioned rolled oats, brown sugar, flour, butter, lemon and spices.”
Herrera also noted that Mama Kat’s makes hundreds of pies prior to December holiday season, but that Thanksgiving still sits as primetime for pie making.
Like smalltown Julian, too, Herrera said that he has attempted to keep the smalltown diner flame flickering as it relates to the feeling customers will have when they come in and have a meal or buy a slice of pie at Mama Kat’s. He harkens back to a time before San Marcos’ boom as a bustling college town with an ever-rising population in describing what the restaurant aims to achieve for a customer experience.
“We still make pies because they make people remember a simpler time,” said Herrera. “They aren’t the biggest profit generator but there is just something nostalgic about them that brings people back. Watching the smile on the faces our guests young and old is worth all the effort that goes into our beloved pies.”
Mama Kat’s sits in the building which once housed Grandpa Allen’s Family Restaurant, where Herrera once worked and perfected the art of making a delectable pie. Though only 39 years old, Herrera has worked in the restaurant for nearly a quarter century.
“I purchased this restaurant from the previous owner who had been making pies since the 1970’s. I learned how to bake from him when I was 16 years old and would come in before high school to watch him bake from memory,” explained Herrera. “I would follow him around and grab the same amount as him and weigh and measure all his work to put some science behind his skill. Slowly I developed my own recipes based off his methodology and teachings.”
Pie making, Herrera noted, is something with which he is still intricately involved in the Mama Kat’s kitchen. In turn, that often means sleep deprivation during the peak of the pre-Thanksgiving pie-making boom.
“Every pie enters and leaves the oven by my hands, so there is little to no sleep happening over those days. It’s not really a job that you can pay cooks and chefs to do,” said Herrera. “Me, my wife and our four girls, along with a select group of staff and loyal Mama Kat’s volunteers, are here to make other families holiday traditions sweet as pie.”
Originally hailing from West Los Angeles, Herrera said that the namesake of the restaurant is his mother, Katherine, or Kat. His mother, when he was growing up, worked professionally as a waitress and Herrera said he often joined her on the job “sitting in restaurants mesmerized by the people that made them special.”
Mama Kat’s logo, too, serves a purpose beyond depicting a charismatic and charming cat, which Herrera said symbolizes the business’ day-to-day ethos.
“I also heard a story once about the hobo culture after the Great Depression and a symbol of a cat in their writings meant a kind woman lived there. A kind heart and warm meal is what our restaurant is all about,” said Herrera. “There is no dress code, or status required. We treat everyone with compassion and care and provide a level of service and quality of food that has become a relic in this fast-paced world. We truly care about our community, employees and customers just like a mother cares for her own family.”
Those seeking a flavor recommendation and still in need of a pie for the holiday season can take it from Herrera, who said he prefers strawberry rhubarb.
“It’s a perfect balance of tart and sweet and balanced so well,” said Herrara. “I tend to get bored if flavors are too sweet, so I really try to find a good balance of the fruit and not too much added sugar.”
Mama Kat’s is located at 950 W San Marcos Blvd in San Marcos, just minutes from both the California State University-San Marcos and Palomar College campuses.