It had been over three years since I last danced at Mama Juana's on the eve of my 30th birthday in 2004. In salsa time, three years can be rather long. Within that period, L.A. saw the closure of the venerable Conga Room (soon to reopen downtown at L.A. Live) and the shuttering of salsa nights at the Boathouse on the Santa Monica Pier and at Sagebrush Cantina in Culver City. With these departures, salsa energy seemed to drift to the outskirts of L.A., to hotspots Steven's Steakhouse in Commerce and the Granada in Alhambra, leaving only three remaining venues in the central city for a salsa fix: El Floridita, the Mayan, and Mama Juana's.
It's a case of Goldilocks and the three dance floors. El Floridita can feel too small and exclusive, the Mayan—with its three levels—can feel too big and flashy, but Mama Juana's feels just right. It's maintained an upscale panache that recreates the golden era of Latin music in the 1940s and 50s, yet the patrons are down to earth, friendly, and polite. It's intimate, but doesn't feel stuffy. Moreover, the live bands are still first rate, such as Saturday night's Chino Espinoza y los Dueños del Son. The floor at Mama Juana's is in excellent condition.
Dining seems more of an emphasis here now than it did three years ago. Where chairs used to be set up along the wall as a place for dancers to rest, more tables for diners have been added. Saturday night there were several huge birthday parties, and their long tables encroached on the dance floor. Strangely, the dining patrons didn't seem to want to dance much. They appeared content to enjoy the Latin fusion cuisine (and birthday cupcakes for dessert) while simply watching the band and the action. Though it kept the floor from becoming unbearably crowded, this odd ratio of diners to dancers made the pool of available partners feel rather small.
But the bar area is quite relaxed and welcoming to non-diners. Our group was able to snag a table in the lounge area without being pushed aside for VIPs. Cocktail waitresses never came by to bug us about ordering more (thankfully, there's no drink minimum). We were allowed to "set up camp" and go about the business of dancing.
The dancers were diverse, bringing their own brands of salsa from Salvador, Cuba, Mexico, and the States. Most were competent, but there were no "superstars," like the hardcore group at Steven's Steakhouse. It was a pleasure to circulate through various partners knowing you wouldn't feel disdained or uncomfortable.
When the Conga Room does re-open at L.A. Live later this year, it's bound to change the salsa dynamics within the city once again. Though it may initially drain patrons from Mama Juana's, the blockbuster Conga Room won't be able to offer half of Mama Juana's charm. As long as Mama Juana's doesn't tip the scales too much in favor of diners over dancers, this sweet spot of salsa will remain relevant.