With the recent opening of You-Ka Cafe, which we'll feature here soon, the Springs now counts a trio of Filipino eateries. Four-year-old Julie's Kitchen was the first, and four-month-old Mama's Kitchen, located in the former North End Diner, is the second, even though half its menu consists of American diner staples.
Philippines native and proprietor Norma Esposo has owned the neighboring laundromat for 11 years, but previously operated an eatery for six years in Manila's busy University Belt. She's sweet as she runs the show with just one front-house helper, touching tables often to explain the Filipino offerings, then disappearing into a half-open kitchen, where soft Christian music pours out along with a little too much smoke for a boxy, low-ceilinged space.
White walls host mismatched prints and mirrors, a tiny retail rack of Fruittasia dolls, Bibles and worship items, and there's a karaoke corner in an adjoining dining room that doubles as community space. It all feels bygone small-town, outdated yet charming, a place where it feels appropriate to add one of those cloying French vanilla creamers I'd normally never use to the coffee to see if it'll mask the scorched-pot, bargain-bean flavor — nope.
But the $5.75 breakfast plates, served all day, are pretty good, especially for the price. We get tonsilog (sweet pork), longsilog (Filipino sausage) and bangsilog (the national fish, a milk fish), though you can also get hotsilog (hot dog), Spamsilog (eeewww!) or eggsilog (egg rolls) — "silog" coming from a mashup of "sinagag" (fried rice) and "itlog" (fried eggs) in Tagalog, the nation's language. So, naturally, each plate finds protein paired with a hearty portion of the sinagag and a couple fried eggs. The pork's sweet as advertised, the sausage vibrantly herb-and-spice-loaded with a hearty char, and the fish fairly plain and salty but likable.
Lunch fares blander. A full chicken ($10) gets baked and fried for soft guts and crispy skin, but seasoning's imperceptible. Fried onions on the Filipino beef steak ($7.50) are most memorable, with side rice and thin, well-done beef cuts tasting mostly of soy, but little else. The chicken and pork adobo ($7.50) arrives dark and inky, with both mushy and tough meat bits, all of which lend a faint acidic tang, but again no majorly bright seasoning. Recipes online show a marinade of vinegar (a traditional preservative) and soy (a Chinese influence) with garlic that's seared then simmered in that marinade; modern adaptations include spicy peppers, pineapple and the like, for reasons I now understand.
The bulalo ($7.50), a soup from beef shanks and bones that deposit a heavy, oily fat layer, proves challenging, if not entirely off-putting — this coming from a guy who makes bone-broth soups regularly at home. My friend pins it with, "It smells like low tide." I can handle a viscous texture, even in cartilaginous meat hunks that horrify co-workers, but the flavor is just off — needing something so it doesn't just taste like over-stewed cabbage and fat. Also bad is the hour it took to assemble my to-go order, when I was told 20 minutes.
Finish with easy fried-banana spring rolls called turon (65 cents each), and try the syrupy sweet sago and gulaman drink ($1.75), a blend of tapioca-like, palm stem-derived pearls and dark green Jell-O-like hunks made from seaweed's agar-agar extraction. Personally I'm glad to at least be sampling new-to-me stuff, even if I'd only return for bits and pieces.