You can see why Mama Lor is so popular. It has a charcoal pit covered with a massive grill covered in charred tilapia (freshwater fish), sticky-pork skewers and whole squids stuffed with tomato, onion and lemongrass.
Charcoal barbequing, a massively popular element of Filipino street-food culture, is rare in Sydney but can be found at this Rooty Hill restaurant. It’s a suburb with a large Filipino population and is enough of a reason to draw a crowd – although there are other reasons too.
Cluttered around the counter are stacks of hopia, a beloved mooncake-like pastry filled with purple yam, mung bean or pork. Opposite are shelves of Filipino rolls, sugary cakes and coconut buns. And down the back is a tiny, in-house bakery where you’ll find Mama Lor herself – the restaurant is named after the family’s mother and grandmother, who are both nicknamed Mama Lor – and her son Joaquin Bantiles working the ovens. “This is really a family business; every weekend we’re all here,” says Sabrina Chau, the daughter-in-law of Mama Lor the second, who also works here, as does her partner Joshua Bantiles.
While it feels like a family restaurant, it sure doesn’t look like one. The packaging on the baked goods, the feature wall of hanging plants, the leather banquettes and the tiled floors make it look more like a trendy cafe. The Mama Lor family owns a string of bakeries in the Philippines and had money to invest in this place; you get the impression they plan to open more.
None of that is relevant to the local Filipino community though – all it cares about is what’s on the menu and how it tastes.
And the community cares about the saltiness and heartiness of the sisig (made with chopped pig’s head and liver), that here they can eat dishes only found in a Filipino home, like pinaupong manok sa sabaw (leek and whole chicken stew), ampalaya dilis (bitter melon and crisp anchovies) and bulalo (beef and bone marrow soup). And that real charcoal is used to cook it all. “Charcoal is what gives the flavour; you don’t need to do much, not much seasoning. Just straight on the grill and right to the table hot,” says Joshua.
Most of all they care about lechon, a suckling-pig dish that’s usually only available to buy as an entire pig. It’s a dish that’s said to originate in Cebu, the second-largest Filipino city and where the family is from. It should be juicy, fatty, have an audibly crisp skin and be served with a traditional liver-based sauce. You can tell by the crowds they’ve nailed it. Joshua warns, though, if you want to try it expect crowds. “If you want a peaceful dining experience, this is not the place. Sunday is pretty crazy.”
Shop 5/39–45 Rooty Hill Road North, Rooty Hill
(02) 8809 7778
Mon to Wed 10am–8pm
Fri to Sun 10am–8.30pm
This article first appeared on Broadsheet on September 5, 2018. Menu items may have changed since publication.