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Mama Lion – A Continuing Evolution

The creation of a destination.
Mama Lion Bar

Mama Lion, a restaurant in the Koreatown area of Los Angeles (in the Wilshire Center), first opened its doors in 1978 as a nightclub and cabaret. It was a hot location! In the 80s and 90s, it changed hands a few times, but in 2017 it re-opened, reprising the Mama Lion name and its historic glory. Believing in incremental change rather than significant overhauls, owners Robert Kim and Robert Ahn have been enhancing Mama Lion over time. This progressive evolution has allowed them to manage renovations and to react to evolving markets.

Kim believes that to thrive, a restaurant should constantly be re-inventing itself. This year they are bringing on board celebrated chef Ricardo Zarate, the "Godfather of Peruvian cuisine." When asked why bring chef Zarate on board now, Kim said, "I couldn't pass up the opportunity to work with such a renowned Chef. We have been friends for a while and have been waiting for the right time to partner up. Both Chef and I share the same vision of bringing in a unique experience with live entertainment, art, and amazing food. His Peruvian style complements his take on Asian and Latin cuisine tailored to guests that want a unique culinary experience."

Mama Lion's strategy is to remain relevant to a menu that excites guests. Being curated by a renowned chef is valuable, but more importantly, it is the creativity that Chef Zarate brings to the menu. Asked how he plans to fuse his signature Peruvian background with Mama Lion's Asian roots, Chef Zarate said he intends to "elevate the restaurant and lounge's menus. Served tapas style, dishes will infuse my signature Peruvian style with regional Asian and Latin influences, reflecting the diversity and vitality of the booming neighborhood. The constantly evolving menu of approximately 10-15 tapas-style core dishes, alongside weekly specials, will be overhauled seasonally with ingredients sourced from top local markets and purveyors. The theme will be Asian and Latin cuisine influenced by the variety of cultures in Koreatown."

In addition to the culinary selections, Mama Lion's mixologists are concocting cocktails that will complement the menu selections. In particular, they are working on some Pisco Sour recipes.

Managing a restaurant with such diversity and uniqueness in its offering is a challenge, Kim says. "With any changes made, there are always challenges. I would say different opinions between my partner, Robert Ahn, and I can pose a challenge if we don't share the same vision. Also, managing expectations is always the most important for me. My challenges are trying to stay relevant to the local and international dining scene."

Managing personnel is, of course, one of the significant challenges of any restaurant. Kim handles it by first hiring well. "I hire based on skill, personality, and always a good smile. I train staff as a family. We are all a team and always have to take care of each other. Team building is also a great way to train staff."

Mama Lion demonstrates the results of assembling an excellent team, starting with compatible owners and then right through to the kitchen, bar, and front of the house – an orchestra that, when well-conceived, results in a must-see destination.

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