Over the years, various Bakersfield restaurants have tried the tapas concept, wholeheartedly or half-heartedly. Mama Roomba is the only place to make it stick.
And it hasn’t changed that much since I last wrote an entire column about the place in 2008, even though we’ve visited many times since then. Also one might argue that the portions for their “tapas” are not really close to what you might find in Europe. They’re American-sized, which leads my companion to sometimes suggest going there for dinner, enjoying a couple of them and a glass of wine as a low-key, low-budget alternative on a weekend night.
That suggestion doesn't always pan out though. The wine by the glass is priced aggressively, as if they’re trying to push you into ordering the specialty cocktails ($6), which might not be a bad idea. The other thing is that the place that was once Luigi the tailor’s shop is so small — especially once winter hits and no one wants to use the patio outside — that just dropping by for a drink and a light meal is a chancy proposition. Do yourself a favor and make reservations. The place is deservedly busy and calling ahead is just plain good advice.
On a recent visit we tried to order the black beans and fried plantains ($5.95), which we order every time we visit. It’s one of the sides, the plantains laid atop the refried beans with some crème fraiche drizzled over the top. It’s Caribbean comfort food. This night they were out so we had to settle for baked black beans instead and went for a couple of the entrees: the Cuban classic ropa vieja ($14.95) and Mama’s Latin fried chicken ($14.95). My companion insisted these were new to us, as the small menu of seven entrees, six sides and 12 tapas has been pretty well explored by us over the year.
There are other restaurants in town you can get ropa vieja, but none make it better, more authentic in the spirit of the island of Cuba. This is the national dish of that island, and comes from a Spanish term for old clothes. You have shredded beef, usually flank steak or chuck, tossed with vegetables such as onions, tomatoes, red peppers, green peppers and I’ve seen yellow peppers and olives in some versions. It should be colorful, flavorful and very tender like pit-style beef. The version here is presented as if it’d been portioned out in a ramekin. The beef strands are more shredded than in some versions I’ve tried. It was fantastic. This also tastes better as leftovers if you can take it home and let it sit in the fridge for a day, which we did. The time helped the various flavors mingle.
Now I was certain we’d tried this fried chicken before, but after seeing it I know I was wrong. The six thick boneless chicken breast strips were husky — two inches wide and more than an inch thick. Chicken fingers on steroids, I guess. On the side was a spicy mango sauce that is thin and quite irresistible. The chicken by itself is fine, but dip it into the sauce for a hot-sweet variation. My companion was wondering if there was some apple cider in that mango sauce, but we had to leave that issue unsettled. I wasn’t buying it. That’s what you get at Mama Roomba: so many spices such as nutmeg, mace and clove that your tongue can get discombobulated.
The beans we received were whole black beans, baked and not as interesting as the version with the plantains.
Based on what we sampled on previous visits, we can also recommend the steak salad ($12.95) with a honey lime dressing that really elevates the beef; the boneless pork chops “Havana style” with a great caramelized onion and roast garlic sauce ($15.95); the roasted Jamaican jerk chicken ($15.95), which really captures the fascinating individual style of what we sampled on trips to that island country; the grilled tri-tip with chimichurri ($17.95); and, from the tapas list, the skillet shrimp with the creamy sauce ($9.95), the sautéed vegetables with garlic and wine ($8.95) and chicken paillard with the creamy mustard sauce ($10.95). The spinach salad with a warm creamy bacon dressing ($7.95) is an old favorite. I appreciate longtime executive chef Isaac Mancilla's creative twists on American, South American and Caribbean cuisines. It’s familiar but fresh is the best way to describe what this kitchen is putting out. Have not yet made it to the empanadas, but we all need goals.
I did mention that I thought the wines were on the high side, probably to steer you towards the $6 specialty drinks or the $4.50 beers (all bottles, no draft). The wine bottles seem to be priced triple retail, which is on the high side.
Service was solid though the staff is small. Without reservations we grabbed a table in the bar and our bartender was our waiter, who resourcefully, slid under an opening the bar when he needed to tend to us. Nice to not be neglected when you’re not responsible enough to plan ahead. There is a warning on the menu that an 18 percent gratuity is added to the bill for parties of eight or more. It’s still such a festive place with bright colors, lights, interesting pictures on the walls in the bar and give the place an other worldly character.
Mama Roomba can be recommended for a fine dining experience.
Pete Tittl’s Dining Out column appears here on Sundays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.