Mama Rosa Rotisserie &Amp; Grill
836 Middle River Road, Middle River, (443) 559-5900, mamarosagrill.com
Cuisine: Filipino, although Mama Rosa owners and customers alike refer to the food as "Pinoy," an affectionate slang term that once referred specifically to Filipinos who migrated to the U.S. but is now used globally to refer to all things-people, food, phenomena-from the Philippines (i.e., Pinoy Idol).
What this means: A joyful mashup of Malaysian, Spanish, Asian, and American flavors and traditions create an exuberant, often intense cuisine known for combining sweet (tamis), sour (asim), and salty (alat) flavors in just about every dish.
What to try: Anything pig. A good starting point is the lechon kawali, strips of crispy fried pork belly ($7.99)-totally bad for you in an oh-so-very-good way. Sizzling pusit, tender citrus-marinated squid quick-seared and then served on a red-hot iron platter with onions, peppers, and tomatoes, all topped with rings of fresh jalapeno,, with an epic amount of garlic rice on the side ($12.99). Atsara, shredded pickled papaya ($5.49)-an exotic take on coleslaw-is wonderful with anything but a must with the pork belly. The rotisserie chicken inasal ($9.99 for a whole bird) is the best around-a classic Filipino treatment where the bird is marinated in vinegar, annatto, garlic, and tart juice from calamansi fruit (also known as Philippine limes) and then charcoal-grilled. Crispy skin, juicy meat, chicken perfection. Desserts are also fantastic-don't miss the leche flan ($3.99) and bibingka ($3.99), a dense, sticky, custardy sweetened-rice cake topped with toasted coconut.
The vibe: Mama Rosa functions as a de facto community center for Baltimore's Filipino community, and the vibe at this plain but impeccable strip mall storefront restaurant shifts throughout the day. Breakfast is a businesslike trade of commuters stopping in for a quick-but-filling sisig silog (a hash of diced roasted pork topped with a fried egg) and cup of coffee ($8.99 for meal combo), while lunch sees the place fill with happy multi-hued diners for a quick, inexpensive but delicious break from work. In the evenings, frequent social events, like a frequent Friday open mic night, fill the dining room to overflowing with Filipino families mixing, mingling, and settling in for the night.
The Owners: There is an actual Mama Rosa, mother of one of the restaurant's original owners; the Lin family pioneered this Middle River mini-embassy four and a half years ago. They hired Paul Tan to manage the place, and he bought it outright eight months back. Tan, who left the Philippines in 2002, now runs it with his son Raphael, 18, and a rotating crew of high school and college students. He says his business philosophy is "making people happy with delicious food while giving back to the community." Indeed, it feels like a happy place, where delicious aromas of garlic and citrus fill the air and the energetic staff sport shirts reading "Laging Masaya sa Mama Rosa"-always happy at Mama Rosa.
Atsara (Filipino pickled papaya) 1 green papaya (green as in variety, not green as in regular red papaya that is unripened; found in Asian markets)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, sliced thin
1 carrot, julienne-sliced
1-inch chunk of ginger, peeled and minced
Peel the papaya and grate or shred it until you have 4 cups. Sprinkle with salt and let rest 10 minutes. Working in batches, place papaya in paper towels and wring dry. Toss with other vegetables and ginger in a large bowl. Put sugar and vinegar into medium saucepan and bring to boil, then remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Pour over papaya mixture, pack into clean container, and refrigerate. Keeps for 3 weeks.