For those who live, work and shop downtown Waco, Mama and Papa B’s Barbeque is a legend — and “Mama B” is like a second mother.
“I’m a people person,” says Mama B, 77, insisting on no other name. “I don’t care who you are: If you walk through my doors, you’re mine and I love you.”
Mama B’s slender frame, and sweet and sassy personality are as much a part of Waco as the no-frills smoky barbecue she and her crew of old-school gentlemen have been serving for more than 30 years.
The walls of Mama and Papa B’s are adorned with photographs of beloved family and friends, portraits of five-plus decades of history, much of it made by Mama B herself. A framed black-and-white photograph of a strikingly lovely and elegantly attired Mama B at an office banquet in the 1960s attests to her long career with Universal Life Insurance, which took her from her hometown of Elgin to Austin and, eventually, to Waco as a supervisor and manager.
“My parents always had a grocery store in Elgin,” said Mama B. “When I was growing up, me and my two sisters and three brothers worked there. So I already knew something about the food business before I started at this place.”
She retired from Universal Life in 1981 and began working with husband Aaron, now deceased, in the small barbecue restaurant he’d opened downtown. She’s never looked back.
Mama B’s husband today, John Henderson, also is her first husband, with whom she had her three children, two of whom are deceased. He came into the restaurant one day a decade or so ago, and Mama B said she just knew that this time it would be perfect between them, and that it has been.
“Oh, he spoils me. I’ve had to make more closets for all the clothes he buys me,” she said, laughing with her signature easy joy.
The restaurant is unpretentious in the extreme: A classic rib shack, smoky with hickory, pecan, oak and a mesquite wood fragrance that drifts for blocks, drawing in neighborhood denizens, downtown workers and interstate travelers. Men in crisp button-downs and women in crepe suits sit elbow-to-elbow with muscled construction workers and traveling families at small, battered tables, all chowing down on generous slabs of tender meats and mounds of tempting sides.
Tucked into the haphazard corner space at Eighth Street and Clay Avenue, about halfway between Interstate 35 and Franklin Avenue, the neat little white, screen-door restaurant with bold red trim has grown into a visible permanency here over the decades. Its famous slogan, painted boldly on the solid wall facing Eighth Street, is: “If the Bears Kill It, We’ll Cook It.”
The unique catchphrase, combined with out-of-this-world tender barbecue, has gained Mama and Papa B’s a notable reputation in the growing circles of barbecue devotees who travel all over the United States in search of tasty gems like this one. The painted slogan is featured in barbecue books and in rave reviews both online and in print, and Mama B feeds Baylor Bears and music stars like the Dap Kings with equal personality and ease.
Here, baked beans are served out of a bubbling stovetop pot and ice-cold homemade potato salad is scooped directly from the icebox. Meats are smoked on-site with abundant quantities of lip-smacking sweet sauce or spicy pepper sauce ready for a generous pour.
The menu is simple, inexpensive and irresistible: Slabs of meltaway beef brisket with a thick smoke ring and crisp crust. Spicy Elgin sausage that sizzles when you slice it. Pork ribs that slide right off the bone.
Mama B’s barbecue plates and sandwiches — the latter enclosed in big, soft squares of classic white bread — cost around three or four bucks. Meat by the pound might run you seven or eight. The potato salad, one of the most in-demand menu items, is sweet, slightly mustardy and heavily, delectably mayonnaise-based. Many customers add large containers of it to their take-out or take-home meat orders so they can experience this Mama B’s delight a few times before their next visit.
Sources of joy
Though Mama B and her husband spend most of their waking hours at the restaurant, they do enjoy visits with their son and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren on their rare days off. And, day to day, they both say that the restaurant is another source of joy.
“With the economy, things did fall off a bit,” Mama B admitted. “But I’ll tell you, things are looking better. God has been good to us. We’ve seen a lot of good businesses come and go over the years, but people keep on walking through that door, and we’re still here.”
She feels fortunate to have success with the eatery.
“Sometimes I ask God why he’s blessed me, what I’ve done to deserve it,” she said, musing in a rare quiet moment between the lunch and dinner crowds. “But then I say, ‘Never mind, God — I’ll just keep taking the blessings as long as you’re willing.’ ” Her throaty laughter rings out into the street as she steps through the screen door into bright afternoon sunlight, waving her bejeweled hands to welcome friends, neighbors and passers-by equally as her own.
Mama and Papa B’s Barbeque
525 S. Eighth St.
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.