ANAHEIM, Calif. — The first few times Angela El Haj passed by the double-sided altar with pictures of her deceased parents at her new restaurant, it felt “jarring.”
For years, Angela El Haj said she’s always thought of death as a state of grief and mourning. But her travels to Mexico and the country’s Day of the Dead celebration changed that perception.
“We were raised, in our culture, that you were really sad when someone passes. You’re constantly crying or always mourning,” said Angela El Haj, who owns the restaurant with her sister Mariam El Haj. “It takes you a while to be able to look at the pictures and bring them forward into your life in a happy way, when you remember them for their laugh or what their favorite food was. It’s a different way of looking at it.”
The altar sits at the entrance of Calaca Mamas Cantina, the sisters’ new Mexican-American-inspired restaurant in Anaheim.
The 1550 South Harbor Blvd. restaurant replaced the former Captain Kidd’s buffet. It sits right across the street from Disneyland’s east entrance.
“We like to joke that COVID killed Captain Kidd,” Mariam El Haj said.
The Day of the Dead, or Día de Los Muertos, is an annual tradition in many Latin American countries. The holiday on the first two days of November encourages families to get together and celebrate their loved ones that have died.
The sisters aren’t Mexican, but Angela and Mariam said they wanted to theme their restaurant as Day of the Dead to honor Mexican and Latin culture.
Framed pictures and other memorabilia of their family and their employees’ loved ones who have died fill a white double-sided altar decorated with orange Mexican marigold flowers and white candles. There’s even a photo of Walt Disney.
Aside from the altar, the restaurant has plenty of Day of the Dead decorations, from skeleton props to various artworks.
One of the first things visitors see is a large mural of a female skeleton at the entrance, and there is another on the back wall. The sisters commissioned a Disney artist to create a “Coco”-movie-like artwork of their parents as skeletons, framed and hung on the back wall.
And there’s a framed hand-beaded artwork from an Oaxacan tribe, something they picked up in Tulum, Mexico.
“It was important for us to pay homage and respect to Mexican heritage and culture,” Mariam said. “It’s a very beautiful part of their culture. Unfortunately, Angela and I have lost our parents. It’s a beautiful celebration of life and not constant mourning.”
Of course, the sisters know while some people come for the ambiance and decor, most come for the food.
The sisters, who grew up in the restaurant industry and now have seven restaurants under their belts, wanted to create a family-friendly taco and margarita spot.
Calaca Mamas is the sisters’ first non-franchise restaurant. The sisters operate several IHOP and Dave’s Hot Chicken franchises.
At Calaca Mamas, they envisioned a place of their own where families could get together and a place where people could casually hang out, maybe after a long day at Disneyland.
The restaurant’s menu is filled with Mexican flavors. For breakfast, visitors can order Huevos Rancheros, breakfast burritos, a churro waffle and Tlayuda — a grilled flour tortilla with black beans, Oaxacan cheese, two eggs, avocado, and pico de gallo.
Lunch and dinner items include carne asada burritos, enchiladas, chile relleno and more. The sisters make a homemade flan and churros served in a tabletop churro cart for dessert.
And, of course, there’s a full bar headed by a mixologist.
The 200-seat restaurant has indoor and outdoor seating. The restaurant is open from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. seven days a week. Parking is at the Best Western hotel next door.
“Our patio has great views of Disneyland’s nightly fireworks,” Angela said.
Angela initially said she felt uneasy with the Day of the Dead altar where she placed her parent’s photos but later appreciated it.
Her parents were immigrants from Palestine and Spain. They owned and operated restaurants in Anaheim and taught the girls about the restaurant business and the importance of hard work.
Mariam remembers working in the family business as a 7-year-old, stepping on the top of milk crates next to the soda machine to fill customers’ drink orders.
These days when Angela walks into Calaca Mamas and passes by the altar and sees the pictures of her mom and dad, she says a little prayer. Her dad died in 2009, and her mom 10 years later in 2019.
She and her sister miss them but know they are now close by.
“I say ‘Hi and good morning,’” Angela said. “I ask them for guidance and help. It’s wonderful that they are here with us.”