Usually, hosting out-of-town visitors means more mouths to feed and more time spent in the kitchen. But when my sister-in-law Rachel and her husband Arnold, a Filipino-American with a gift for cooking, come for their yearly visit, I get a break.
They arrive with coolers full of hand-rolled lumpia; vacuum-sealed bags of pork and beef in dark and mysterious marinades; and bottles of sweet and spicy dipping sauces. I make sure to stock up on Arnold's favorite ingredients — soy sauce, fish sauce, sticky rice, chilies and coconut milk — and then I turn my kitchen over to him. When they leave, my freezer and refrigerator are stocked. It's the perfect system. Until, that is, the freezer empties out. Enter the symptoms of withdrawal.
So I was excited when no fewer than three people in the same week brought my attention to Mama Tuds Kitchen in a strip mall near Dimond and Old Seward. Was it new, I wondered? How could I have missed it? In fact, I had driven by it dozens of times since its opening last year, but this little spot has been suffering from the fallout of our least-favorite Alaska season: construction. The building of a new ramp to the Seward Highway at Scooter Avenue has definitely stood in the way — literally and figuratively — of getting the word out on this little gem of a restaurant.
But the construction is done, the road is open and the parking is ample, so I grabbed my daughters and headed over for some research (being a food writer means getting to call your personal cravings "research").
We were greeted warmly when we walked into the spare, but gleaming, dining room. Dishes are available to order but the main focus is on the array of dishes simmering temptingly on an extensive steam table. You can order with your eyes. Entrees can be ordered a la carte (small for $8.49, medium for $12.49 or large for $15.49) or as a combo with two entrees plus rice ($10.49). There are a lot of choices, but the family that runs the restaurant, enthusiastically wielding ladles and soup spoons, is there to help. The sign out front says Mama Tuds is an Asian and Spanish deli, but they were quick to explain that it meant, for the most part, Filipino food — a cuisine that is influenced by both culinary traditions. They patiently walked us through the dozen or so dishes that were available that day.
"Are you an adventurous eater?" one server asked. When I answered in the affirmative, he handed me a small dish of diniguan — a savory stew of pork offal served in a rich, pork-blood gravy. "What do you think?" he asked. But I was too busy eating it — warming to the spicy broth — to answer properly. To the uninitiated, this dish might sound macabre, but the taste is familiar — densely meaty and earthy.
I also got to sample the sisig — also known as Filipino "sizzling pork" — a hash of pig's jowls and other pig parts cooked with spices and chilies. "This is good with a cold beer," said the owner, making me instantly want a cold beer, which, alas, they don't serve.
But have no fear, cautious eaters. There is plenty for you here, even if your tastes don't run to the parts of the pig less-eaten. And I was in the company of a cautious eater of my own. In the end, I opted for the chicken curry, pork adobo, beef caldereta, two skewers of barbecued pork and the sisig (mostly for me) on three separate plates. We added an order of the lechon — a boneless roasted suckling pig with a crackling crisp skin (this dish is served Friday, Saturday and Sunday only and is sold by weight). I ordered a half-pound (roughly) which was enough for all of us to get a few good bites.
The chicken curry was creamy, spicy and satisfying. The heat was subdued and the chunks of chicken were moist and tender.
The pork adobo, considered by many to be the unofficial national dish of the Philippines, was hearty and comforting with fat, tender chunks of braised pork and an aromatic broth. When I first hounded my brother-in-law for his recipe, I was confounded by its simplicity and suspicious that he was keeping some secret ingredient to himself. Soy sauce, vinegar, a bit of garlic — it's alchemical in its perfect, savory, balance.
The beef caldereta was my favorite of the day and my new obsession. A melt-in-your mouth dish with tender chunks of beef, potatoes and carrots stewed in a rich, flavorful, ever-so-slightly spicy, tomato-based gravy, it was the perfect dish for an afternoon when you could smell the snow in the air. I could eat it all winter. And might.
The barbecue pork skewers, which I bought for my pickiest eater, were perfect. The smoky char from the grill was still perceptible beneath the sticky sweet and salty glaze that clung to the thinly sliced strips of pork. And, of course, we all know that everything tastes better when eaten on a stick. We all took turns chomping at these while my youngest daughter glared resentfully. But that's what she gets for being a picky eater.
The lechon ($15.99/lb.) is clearly a point of pride at Mama Tuds. I defy you to take a look at this brown and gleaming pork dish and not yearn for a slice. After portioning a piece off, Ramon took it back to the kitchen to slice it up — carefully dotting the plate with perfect little squares of crackling pig skin. Alongside comes a dish of house-made liver sauce. The pork is soft, mild, and tender — almost buttery. The liver sauce is meaty and pungent and … definitely only for liver fans.
When you're a food writer, there's always a little bit of culinary zeitgeist in the air. After hearing about Mama Tuds three times in one week and then learning, incidentally, that October is Filipino American History Month, there was nothing for it but to drop my to-do list and grab my fork. And the week of the first snowfall was the perfect time to tuck into Mama Tuds slow-cooked, rich and homey fare.
Finding a convenient place to get my Filipino cuisine fix doesn't mean that my in-laws will be any less welcome. But, on his next visit, I might find more time to visit with Arnold rather than waiting, impatiently, for him to put his family's cooking onto my family's plates. I might just ask him some questions other than, "What did you bring?" and "What are you cooking?" In fact, maybe next time, I'll give him a break and take him to Mama Tuds Kitchen.
Mama Tuds Kitchen: Asian and Spanish Deli
Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday
Location: 9191 Old Seward Highway,