The place was like a scene out of a mafia movie; a modern day Key West “Sopranos.” With my back to the only two white plastic picnic tables, I could feel heavy eyes burning my neck. When I turned around, a very large man with dark hair and wrinkled brows stared at me indifferently while leaning back in his chair and mechanically chewing a toothpick. He was sitting at a table covered with the remains of what looked to have been quite the feast. When he noticed we hadn’t been served yet, he shifted his glare from our place at the high top bar to yell at a lady talking on the phone to someone in another language. She immediately shuffled out of the tiny kitchen and, rolling her eyes, handed us a couple menus.
Meet Mam. She’s the quirky cook and the owner of Mam’s Best Food. Her thick accent suggests she’s cooking recipes that someone passed onto her when she was still living back home. Considering the cuisine is Middle Eastern kosher, it’s a place very far from here.
She gave us five minutes to look over our choices and reappeared from the ramshackle small hut that is the kitchen. She threw a hand on her hip to let us know she was ready to take our order. Word to the wise: Think twice before asking a question. When we asked her to explain the difference between a few dishes she simply pointed to her and then to me and said, “Me and her are the same, but we are different.” Fair enough. Although we weren’t sure what that meant, we started with the bourekas.
Turns out that bourekas is a pastry similar to a warm croissant with potato that is served with a side of hummus, tomato sauce and boiled egg. The traditional way to eat it is to slice open the bread and make your own sandwich with the ingredients given. Smear with hummus, dollop with tomato sauce and pile on as much egg as you want.
Halfway through my bourekas, my falafel arrived carefully packaged in aluminum foil and bursting with crispy fried chickpea patties, homemade hummus, salad, mayo and chili sauce. Mam placed it a few inches in front of me and lifted one finger. “Don’t touch,” she commanded. The hand went back on the hip as she sauntered back into the kitchen to prepare my companion’s schawarma with hummus, babaganoush and salad on a baguette.
Mam expects guests to practice good manners in her restaurant.
She also expects loyalty. When she learned that we are locals she told us that we better come back soon. We assured her if she keeps making food like that, we will. And when a neighbor who she apparently hasn’t seen in a while stepped out of her home with a basket of laundry, she jokingly yelled, “Are you moving? I never see you! Are you moving? I kill you!”
Her personality is … invigorating. It is the kind of take-no-fuss kind of passion that diners want to see when looking for authentic fare. The very large scary looking men, the small hut of a home kitchen, the rickety plastic picnic tables, and of course Mam herself are a part of the whole experience just as much as the food.
Jennifer Garrison is a food writer and photographer but prefers the term culinary adventurist. After briefly traveling the globe in search of the perfect meal she eventually found her home in Key West where she now writes a blog called the Madventures of a Girl. Email her at Jen@keysweekly.com
Mam’s Best Food
405 Petronia St., Key West