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Big Mama's Karaoke Cafe
10605 Chapman Hwy

by Ally Carte

Until the last five minutes, Big Mama's Karaoke Café was a delightfully surreal experience, one that I'd highly recommend. To be honest, I'd still recommend it as a good, if somewhat strange, way to kill an evening.

Last time I was in what's now Big Mama's building, it was a buffet restaurant called Friends at Seymour. It was fine, I suppose, as far as buffets go—a little cavernous and sterile, maybe, but the food was fairly good and the selection vast. For the life of me, I just couldn't picture it transforming into a karaoke bar.

Count this among the number of things I've been wrong about, the last probably being "Goat cheese? That stinky stuff? It'll never catch on."

Clearly, Big Mama's is the realization of a dream. The space has been transformed into a karaoke wonderland; all that's left of the old Friends is the stone fireplace. The inside is tricked out with all of the gear an enthusiast could ever dream of—rows of music-track-only CDs, a mini recording booth, all types of speaker and lighting systems, as well as a plethora of posters, memorabilia, instruments, and shiny things tacked to every available horizontal surface. Also, perched conveniently on a stool was a slightly greater than life-size ceramic Elvis, complete with gold lamé jacket and acoustic guitar.

That's just on the retail side of the operation, where would-be karaokers are herded until a table opens up in the stage area. It can be a long wait, given how popular Big Mama's has become. Boosting its popularity are its TV shows, which air on Saturdays at midnight on Fox 43 and Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Comcast cable channel 10. When we arrived, which was 'round 8 p.m. on a Saturday, the parking lot was jammed and the wait for a table hovered around 45 minutes. For our amusement, in addition to the diversions of the retail area, there were karaoke set-ups both in the vestibule and at the top of the parking lot.

The wait alone was amusing, diverting, deeply odd—and a decent way to kill time. Everywhere you turned there were screens, either flashing lyrics to Top 40 Country or simulcasting the action happening onstage. It was the exact opposite of paranoia; rather than feeling as if everyone was watching you, everyone wanted you to watch them.

Most of the singers were not bad. Some were amazing. Very few were outright painful to listen to. (A hint: never try to tackle Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" unless you've had some real training, and never, ever after a couple of beers.) While there was a lot of pop—the same Backstreet Boys (or was it N'Sync?) ditty came up three times—there were also old standards and some bluegrass.

Once released from the retail side of Big Mama's, we were led through the crowd to a table just underneath the command center, where the master of ceremonies hangs out and the video is shot. Liquid courage (Rolling Rock and Budweiser, each $2.50) was ordered and promptly delivered.

While both the "Rock-A-Billy" Cheese Fries with chili, cheese, and sautéed onions ($5.99) and the "Livin' La Vida" Nachos ($4.99) caught my hungry eye, we ordered the Big Mama's Super Sampler ($8.99), which was chock full of crispy fried things—cheese sticks, jalapeno poppers, mushrooms, chicken wings, and potato skins served with marinara and sour cream. No, it's not exactly health food, but all of Big Mama's offerings (song-inspired names included) fit its family-friendly, theme-parkish decor. Besides, unclogged arteries are for wusses.

The "Hunka Hunka" Hot Roast Beef Open Faced Sandwich ($6.99) was the winner among the dishes that landed on our table. Thin and delicate slices of freshly roasted beef gently plounced on some Texas toast, covered in brown gravy that was pretty tasty, even though it may have started its day in a package. Crispy and perfectly browned fries were a wonderful accompaniment to this comfort food staple.

Faring not as well was the "Big Mama" burger ($6.99) and the "Beyond the Sea" platter ($12.99), which was chock full of (you guessed it) battered and fried fish bits and a tasty helping of stuffed crab. Neither bad nor good, these offerings didn't distract one bit from the non-stop action on-stage. Next time around, I think I'll try the Hot Bologna Sandwich ($6.99), a half-pound bologna steak coated in hot sauce and served with a slice of raw onion. And I'll be sure to grab a roll of Tums before I go.

While the food is generally on the upper-end of good and serviceable, the floor show is a hoot, for the most part, if a) you're the sort of person who generally finds other people fascinating and/or b) you like Top 40 and to sing in front of an appreciative, warm, and forgiving crowd, like this one.

About that last five minutes—some strange combination of two-plus hours of karaoke, fried food, American beer, and, maybe, sunspots caused some strange reaction within me, wherein I had to flee into the relative quiet of the humid night. Blame cognitive dissonance. Blame an O.D. of surreality. But don't blame Big Mama.

August 9, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 32
© 2001 Metro Pulse