Four stuffed llamas perch like sentries over the drink cooler, and Salvadoran bromeliads hang from the ceiling, but the head-turner at Mami Nora's is chicken: marinated, then roasted in a vast rotisserie over wood charcoal, producing tender, smoky meat. As many as 36 birds, sourced from Rocky Mount, roast on spits simultaneously.
The stainless, vault-like oven, stamped with the name and telefax of its Peruvian manufacturer, burns 40 pounds of wood each day. Ranbir Bakhshi opens the door, releasing a wave of heat and aroma, to point out one bird that's almost done, its spiced skin browning over red coals and silver ash.
Combine the advantages of counter service, roomy booths, self-service salsas and food your kids will eat with lively Latin music and South American home cooking. There you have Mami Nora's, named for Nora Palma, who runs the Durham flagship while her son, Bakhshi, manages the new Raleigh location, conspicuously neon yellow with red striped awnings.
Five years ago, Palma's husband took the family to his homeland of Peru. Palma and her son, who had attended culinary school in Maryland, sampled their way through Lima and Cusco (including tasting the local delicacy, guinea pig, which is not represented at Mami Nora's) and returned home inspired.
The menu invites families with its variety and its prices. A quarter-chicken with two sides is $5.50; a half, $7.50; a whole, $12.50. The sides cater to all: Try the soupy, Cuban-style black beans with jasmine rice; the crisp, salty tostones (fried plantains); the slightly sweet, starchy yuca fries, which are positively indulgent dipped in salsa amarillo, a mustardy mayonnaise; or the delectable hand-cut French fries. (Yuca, also known as cassava or manioc, is similar to potato but a bit more fibrous.) Share the platanos maduros (caramelized plantains that evoke Palma's Salvadoran childhood), but skip the generic salad and get the sopa de pollo (chicken soup), but only if it's just been made.
On one visit, it was surprisingly oily with mushy rice, perhaps the last of a batch. Two subsequent times, it was magnificent with hearty stock, firm vegetables, pulled chicken and the bright bouquet of minced cilantro, garlic, tomatoes and poblanos. (Pick some up to treat your next stuffy nose.)
Check the board for specials (usually $6.99) like chipotle-spiced mole or masa tacos. The arroz chaufa (jasmine rice with egg, chicken, chorizo, scallions and onions) is also worth attention; it resembles jambalaya or Chinese fried rice, making a hearty midwinter dish.
The chi cha morada, a Peruvian drink made in-house from boiled purple corn, seems likewise festive with clove, cinnamon and pineapple. For now, Mami Nora's carries only nonalcoholic drinks, like horchata and tamarind agua fresca, though the 20-odd imported beverages may get you high on life.
Bakhshi smiles when diners rediscover colas they've not tasted since last in their homelands, or when first-timers find a new love. Pony Malta (Colombia) has molasses undertones; Coco Rico (Puerto Rico) has a crisp coconut fizz; Inca Cola (Peru) has a zesty cream-soda sweetness.
If hauling everyone out into the cold for a meal seems like too much, take heart. Mami Nora's does takeout.