Photography: Jill Orschel
Her infectious, shining smile is a lot like the bright Australian sun. She does, after all, hail from Down Under. Liza Pickering is the owner of Nacho Mama’s restaurant, serving Park City locals and tourists Mexican fare for 21 years now. At Nacho Mama’s, you’ll find Mexican cuisine with a slight north-of-the-border slant; not exactly Tex-Mex, but not quite traditional Mexican cooking, either. Specialties of the house include much beloved fajitas, baby back ribs with chipotle BBQ sauce, the juicy green chile burger and wildly popular “ensheiladas” — blue corn tortillas stuffed with Monterey jack cheese, spinach, red onions and red and green bell peppers, all smothered in chile verde with pineapple salsa on the side.
When asked how a school teacher from Down Under wound up running a Mexican restaurant in a Utah ski town, Pickering laughs and says, “I’m just adding to the multiculturalism!”
Park City Magazine: The name “Nacho Mama’s” is brilliant. Where did that come from?
Liza Pickering: Jim, my ex-husband, played in a band called Dr Bob. And Betts, who was their lead singer, came up with Nacho Mama’s, and it stuck.
PCM: In 21 years, you’ve seen a lot of restaurants in Park City come and go. What’s the secret of your success? How has Nacho Mama’s endured?
LP: Well, back when I first started, there were maybe 20 core Park City restaurants that stayed open all year. Everybody pretty much knew each other. And parking was an advantage for us for a while since we weren’t on Main Street. There’s been a lot of growth since then. But, our biggest clientele has definitely been our locals. They’ve kept us going. We see the same people year in and year out, whether they’re people who have a time share here or those who live in town year-round. Plus, it’s sort of like “Cheers” at our restaurant, where everybody knows your name.
PCM: For someone who’s never been to Nacho Mama’s, in a nutshell, how would you describe your restaurant?
LP: We’re a fun, casual restaurant-cantina. Very family-friendly. Inexpensive, with good comfort food.
PCM: At Nacho Mama’s, you seem to be able to straddle the “adult” restaurant and “family” restaurant line pretty well.
LP: In ’95 we added the second room to the restaurant, which used to be a video store. Coincidentally, this was when I had just had a child, and back then, there was no place in Park City to take your kids to eat. As people like me transitioned from partying on Main Street and going to bars or fancy restaurants, to dining somewhere you could take your kids, Nacho Mama’s filled that need. It’s a place where both the adults and their families can enjoy themselves and be comfortable. After all, we adults are just “bigger kids.” The adults enjoy the foosball just as much as the kids do. Plus, we have a good kids’ menu with a variety of Mexican food as well as things like chicken tenders and burgers. Because we’ve been here so long now, people who came here as kids years ago are now either married and bringing in their spouses and their own kids, or they come here on dates. So, they graduate to the adult menu, and a lot of them come here for their first legal drinks on their 21st birthdays.
PCM: I’m curious, has Mexican cuisine drifted as far as Australia?
LP: No, my family would love for me to open something down there! Melbourne, where I’m from, is a city of five million people and 15,000 restaurants. But it has only four Mexican restaurants, and only one of them is worth eating at.
PCM: Getting back to the food at Nacho Mama’s: In 21 years there must have emerged some favorite dishes — items you just can’t take off the menu?
LP: Actually, I think in all that time we’ve only taken one thing off our menu.
PCM: That’s a pretty high rate of success!
LP: Well, there are about six very popular dishes that customers never deviate from. People will gun you down if you take their favorites off the menu. The veggie burrito, for example, is very popular, as is our Mamacita’s burrito. The fish taco is the most popular thing on our menu, being as landlocked as we are! The tostada is a huge dish for us. And the chicken tacos — not beef, not bean — but the chicken tacos — we have customers who, in 21 years, have never eaten anything else on the menu! And the shrimp enchiladas are the same way. We have this one group of guys from Heber City who started coming here when they were in high school. They’re all married now and they all have kids and they all still get shrimp enchiladas. Their wives now order shrimp enchiladas, too!
PCM: Where do you like to eat out?
LP: I like Mexican and Southwestern food. Italian is probably my favorite, though. I like Fuego; they’ve got great pizza. And Chez Betty is also one of my favorites. Out of town, Snake Creek Grill is my favorite place to go.
PCM: Any plans for the future of Nacho Mama’s?
LP: Yes. I’m hoping my children will take over!
Nacho Mama’s, 1821 Sidewinder Dr., 435.645.8226
Ted Scheffler is dining editor of Salt Lake City Weekly and a longtime devotee of Mexican cuisine of all styles and types, from Puebla's chiles en nogada and Oaxacan moles to Baja fish tacos and Sonoran carne asada.