Home Cookin’ Comes To Tonto Basin

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Alexis Bechman/Roundup

The staff at Momma Lou’s Cafe includes Jamie Ewing, Kate Cooper, John Laska, owner Nancy Shelton, Joey Shelton and Matt Miles.

Nancy Shelton doesn’t believe in serving skimpy portions at Momma Lou’s Café.

Heaping portions of mashed potatoes and okra fill plates along with king-size pork chops, meatloaf, catfish and great slices of mouse and fruit pie.

“You do not leave that place hungry,” frequent customer Jerry Miles mused. “I have probably put on 10 pounds since she opened.”

Shelton opened Momma Lou’s just two months ago, and by the number of customers found on a recent Thursday night, word is spreading fast on this delicious eatery, in the heart of downtown Punkin Center.

“I haven’t had anything I don’t like,” Pat Miles says with a stack of white to-go boxes piled in front of her, the leftovers of Thursday night’s special: fried pork chops.

“They are delicious,” she says, motioning for me to order some to see for myself.

“Sure, why not,” I tell waiter Kate Cooper.

Within minutes, a plate is whisked out from the kitchen and I am not disappointed.

While this is Shelton’s first restaurant venture, it is not her first time in the kitchen. For years, Shelton cooked for family and friends who insisted her food was good enough to sell.

When Shelton lost her human resource/accounting job at a construction company in August, it was the perfect moment to take a risk and open a restaurant.

“I wanted to do home cooking, with everything homemade,” she said.

With a space available for rent in Punkin Center, Shelton took a leap of faith and opened Momma Lou’s Café, whose name is an ode to both her mother and Mary Lou Morton, who drowned in Roosevelt Lake in May 2008. Shelton said she bought Morton’s horses and became friends with Morton’s husband Ted, who she has been feeding ever since Morton’s untimely passing.

Shelton said the Lord helped her through the opening of the restaurant.

“I prayed for it and asked for a path if this is what I should do,” she said.

Shelton’s main concern was finding chairs and booths to furnish the 2,000-square-foot restaurant. When Shelton asked a friend to look for some at a Valley auction, he found a complete set for only $790.

After getting the furniture, Shelton said she knew “this is what I am supposed to do.”

One of the first things you notice about the bright, cheery restaurant (besides the great furniture) is its cleanliness, a good thing for a place you are about to eat at. Everything is picked up and put in its place.

“I am a stickler for cleanliness,” Shelton said. “I like to think I brought elegant dining to the Basin.”

The main dining room features a cowboy theme while an adjacent room is decked out in fishing chotskys. Shelton calls this the “party room” because it can host large events.

Photos near the back of the room show Shelton and her husband Andy Shelton proudly holding six-plus-pound lunkers. The Sheltons won the AllStar Bass Couples Tournament held at Bartlett Lake on March 17, 2007.

The café is staffed by 13 Tonto Basin area residents, three of whom were unemployed and looking for work like Shelton. Shelton said her employees are wonderful and “have taught me a lot and helped me get this business going.”

Cooper said she is an avid fan of Shelton’s homemade vanilla crème pie.

Besides vanilla, Shelton bakes delicious chocolate crème, apple, cherry, peach and blueberry pies.

Shelton has shared her recipes and style of cooking with chefs Matt Miles and John Laska. Before becoming a cook, Laska worked as a manager at a Subway and Matt a computer engineer.

Matt said cooking is a great change of pace from his previous job.

“This is really what I have been looking for,” he said.

Weekly specials at Momma Lou’s Café include: Monday, chef’s surprise; Tuesday, chicken enchiladas with homemade salsa; Wednesday, meatloaf; Thursday, fried pork chops; Friday, fish fry — choice of shrimp, cod or catfish; Saturday, prime rib and Sunday, fried chicken. Buttermilk biscuits are baked fresh daily. For more information, call (928) 479-2276.

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