The introduction of Mama Pang’s in the city’s landmark dive bar, PK’s, has shown the signs of a new undercurrent of flavor-focused, thoughtful food in the capital of Southern Illinois.

Lisa Pangburn-Fenton has been a regular at PK’s for the last 20 years, but it took her being laid off as first cook at SIU Carbondale to push her into a an unheard-of situation for a cook — a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. gig.

When the bar’s matriarch, Gwen Hunt, died last year, an opportunity opened for Pangburn-Fenton that she couldn’t pass up — to take over the kitchen at her home away from home. With kitchen partner James Hinkle, the two started pushing out slow food that the two hoped would be a comfort to their patrons.

That became Mama Pang's.

“I want to feed people food they would have at home,” Pangburn-Fenton said. This was important for a lot of reasons but at the core was her desire to keep the spirit of Hunt alive.

The most obvious homage to Hunt is “Gwensdays,” where Pangburn-Fenton and Hinkle keep the tradition of Wednesday chili mac intact, as well as red beans and rice on Mondays.

“She [Gwyn] believed you had beans on Mondays for a prosperous week,” she recalled.

Pangburn-Fenton said the day shift has at least doubled its business since they started having consistent food offerings late last summer, and she has had one thing she wants her customers to come away with, other than a smile.

“Dive bars can make damn good food,” she said.

The tie that binds up and coming Carbondale restaurants like Mama Pang’s together is a disregard for doing things the easy way.

“Nothing comes out of a cube or a box,” Hinkle said of Mama Pang’s process. Wednesday’s French onion soup took more than five hours to make, he said.

They believe that the more quality food in Carbondale, the more people will visit. Hinkle said if someone comes to town they don’t just eat at one restaurant. Not all the restaurants in town are thrilled about more competition, but the newcomers on the Strip see no problem with it.

-- reprinted from Oct. 2018, Isaac Smith, The Southern 

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