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Food of Dreams--and Many Memories

A giant poster of Machu Picchu, the great ruin of the Incas, is glued to a wall. This may give some customers pause, because the sign outside identifies this restaurant as Mama Rosie’s Down Home Cooking. Did Mama Rosie migrate from the Andes to Canoga Park? Were the Incas big on chitlins and grits?

“How’d you hear about us?” Keith Durr asks. His expression suggests the optimism and pride of a man new to the restaurant business.

Oh, just driving by.

Matter of fact, I’d been meaning to drop by this little place on Winnetka, just south of Saticoy, when it advertised Peruvian cuisine. This was a curiosity as well, because the restaurant was named Milano’s. I’m told it was strictly Italian before Peruvian dishes were added.

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Even in multicultural L. A., the Italian-Peruvian hybrid apparently failed to connect. So now Keith Durr and his fiancee, Pamela Witcher, serve up a cuisine that for all its American roots is downright exotic out here in the San Fernando Valley.

Now, this isn’t the kind of Southern cooking--the chicken ‘n’ dumplings, black-eyed peas and sweet potatoes--that my Alabama-born mother used to serve us way down south in Santa Ana. This is black Southern cooking--what used to be called soul food, a term out of vogue these days. There’s some overlap, but not a lot.

Mama Rosie’s--it’s named after Durr’s grandmother--might seem more at home in South-Central, or maybe Panorama City. But Canoga Park? Here in the Valley--in all of L. A., really--it’s much easier to find souvlaki, biryani and tom ka gai soup than collard greens.

“I missed Mama’s cooking, and as I started thinking about it, I thought a lot of people would like it, if we could just get them to try it,” Durr explains. “I want to introduce it in the area.”

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It’s hard not to admire the gumption of Keith and Pamela. They are trying to buck the odds. Here we are in the middle of a recession, with California’s unemployment hovering close to 10%. Even in good times, most new restaurants go belly-up before their first anniversary. And though Pamela has made concessions to health-conscious Southern Californians, there’s no denying the fact that Mama Rosie’s is built on a foundation of fried foods. You won’t find any little s on their menu to note low-cholesterol entrees.

Dreams are like that, though. It’s almost as if Keith and Pamela heard a little voice: “If you serve it, they will come.”

He’s a 26-year-old graduate of Taft High School who moved from Mississippi to Woodland Hills at the age of 13. Pamela, 28, was born in Atlanta and learned to cook from her mother.

They met at a party three years ago and have been together ever since. He was producing local rap concerts, she was a medical assistant. Keith was so impressed with her cooking--so much like Mama Rosie’s back home--that he arranged for her to do backstage catering.

One thing led to another and on the Fourth of July they opened Mama Rosie’s. Soon, Machu Picchu will be torn from the walls, Keith says. This being America, he plans to install a big-screen TV. What could be better, he figures, than ribs, beer and Monday Night Football?

But food, not football, will make or break Mama Rosie’s.

It seems a safe bet that many folks will try it at least once. Now, it must here be noted that although chitlins are on the menu, Pamela has none on hand. She’s still waiting to see if demand is sufficient. Why it wouldn’t be I don’t know. Menudo, the beloved soup of Mexico, has a stock of cow intestine. And what is chitlins but just a cute name for boiled pig guts?

Well, maybe Pamela is smart to wait. But she’s pleased to report that several customers, having tried collard greens for the first time, are coming back for more.

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The night I dropped by, the barbecued ribs got a big thumbs-up from Eric and Rita Dettemaier of Reseda, who dropped by with out-of-town guests. The ribs, I thought, were good, but not great. I was more impressed by side dishes--the country-style potatoes, the grits and fried okra.

Believe me, it took courage to order the okra. You see, my mother served it boiled. Not only did it taste awful, but its texture was slimy and fibrous. Where was the Department of Children’s Services when you need them?

The Dettemaiers, I must report, found the service a bit slow, but then everything is slower down South, except stock cars.

We told each other that although fried foods aren’t exactly what you’d find at, say, the Inn of the Seventh Ray, there’s really nothing wrong with a cholesterol binge now and then. If it’s bad for the body, maybe it’s good for the soul, which might explain that old nickname. And you never know: Those scientists who figured out that a little red wine is good for you might discover that Mama Rosie’s barbecue sauce will prevent baldness or enhance your love life.

Pamela is only too aware of Southern cooking’s bad rap. She used to be a medical assistant, remember.

So instead of lard, she cooks with vegetable oil. Instead of salt, she uses salt substitutes. And sometimes she uses turkey instead of ham hocks in her collard greens.

Goodness knows what Mama Rosie would say.

“There are ways of getting around it,” Pamela explains, “so when people leave here they won’t feel like they’re going into cardiac arrest.”

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