To get to Momma Rav’s, one of Alaska’s most memorable carinderias, you must first make it to Palmer, a small town some 70 kilometers north of Anchorage in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Turn onto Route 1 from Anchorage and the concrete sprawl of Alaska’s largest city recedes into the kind of landscape the state is better known for.
The Knik River winds west of the road; the Chugach Mountains rise to the east. Palmer is a pocket of Americana tucked between two mountain ranges, the Chugach and the Talkeetna, with a compact downtown that seems airlifted from some New England hamlet. But this downtown isn’t yet where you’ll find Momma Rav’s.
Leave town and turn into the farmland that blankets this valley like a patchwork quilt. The Matanuska-Susitna Valley, commonly called Mat-Su, was first farmed by hard-up Midwestern migrants during the Great Depression as part of a New Deal plan. It is still a fertile place, though refrigerated barges and trucks from the lower 48 make it less critical to the state’s food supply than it once was.
Farm stands selling potatoes, rhubarb, golf ball-sized apples and other cold-weather crops dot the roadside. Next to the largest and most established of these stands — Bushes Bunches, open since 1956 — there is a red trailer shaped like a miniature caboose. Lucky cats beckon in the window and a chalkboard below reads “kain tayo (ka-in-ty-yoh) = let’s eat!” Behind this window, more often than not, is the eponymous Momma Rav.
“Everybody calls me Momma,” says Rodalyn Patrimonio-Raval (better known as Roda Raval), taking a break from the caboose to chat under the awning of Bushes Bunches on a foggy October morning. Before she started her business, Roda was known for bringing lumpia and pancit to her children’s sports practices and parties. “So every time they see me, they yell, ‘It’s Momma Rav’s food!’” she says, laughing.
Born in Alabang, Roda moved to California in 1994 and met her husband, Roger Raval, in San Bruno. The high cost of living in the Bay Area started to pinch when she became pregnant with her second child. The family moved to Las Vegas, but Roda soon grew tired of the desert. Advice came from a friend in Alaska: “If you want a simple life, you’re going to make it here, knowing you.”And Roda said, ‘You know what? I’ll be there. Expect me in a month.”
The family packed up and drove from Vegas to Anchorage, a journey of some 5,500 kilometers, within the month.
In Anchorage, Roda opened an assisted living facility, leaving behind her previous job in the banking industry. This was in 2008. “The money I made every two weeks at the bank, I’m making that in four days doing caregiving,” she says. “I’d never made that kind of money from doing banking.”
Thanks to her income, she and her husband were able to buy a house in Wasilla, the Mat-Su hometown of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, in 2010. But she blames the breast cancer she later developed on the stress of the job. “You get attached to your clients. It took a piece of me every time they go,” she says, her hand to her heart. “So I said, no more.”
Cancer caused Roda to rethink her priorities. She wanted to spend her days doing the things she loves, surrounded by the people she loves. So she cooked. Momma Rav’s made its debut in 2017 at the Palmer farmers market, where she met Bushes Bunches co-owner Vickie Bush — Roda calls her “Momma Bush.” In 2019, one momma invited the other to use the red trailer, and it has been busy ever since.
Momma Rav’s seems designed to withstand the pandemic. There’s no indoor dining, just a few well-worn picnic tables, and Roda rarely has any helpers other than her husband and two children: Rio, 21, and Ridge, 19. Rio runs the business’s social media accounts while her brother, who is studying for a business degree, helps manage the books. Both are also involved in all the messier kitchen work. Roger, also known as Poppa Rav, mans the grill behind the trailer. The smells of a Filipino street market — garlic, grilled meat, sweet marinade turning toffee-dark against the grates — rise incongruously in the cold Alaskan air.
Any order here should pull from that grill. Most days, it sings with the sizzle and hiss of street-style pork barbecue, liempo and kalbi ribs. Fridays bring Hawaiian-style huli huli chicken in its pineapple glaze like charred nectar. Roda got the recipe for her barbecue marinade from a friend who runs a popular ihaw-ihaw spot in San Pedro, Laguna. She was willing to tell me some of the standard ingredients — soy sauce, banana ketchup, lemon, garlic, black pepper — “but the last one, I’ll keep a secret,” she says.
Come winter, the temperature will drop below 0° and Roger will wear half a dozen layers of clothing to grill that barbecue-with-a-secret. The trailer works for the family for now, but Rio tells me about her dreams for a future brick-and-mortar location — a cozy cafe with Filipino-style brunch and a dessert case by the counter. She wipes the corners of her eyes with a napkin as she describes it, then apologizes. “I just have such strong feelings about this business,” she says.
Rio was 17 when her mother started Momma Rav’s, and the summers of her late teens were punctuated by late nights and early mornings chopping vegetables, stir-frying noodles and rolling lumpia in preparation for the weekly farmers markets. Her role in the business has grown since then. The aesthetic charm of the place is all due to her influence: the lucky cats, the pink curlicue greetings on the chalkboard, the stickers by the register featuring grizzly bears eating lumpia. One can imagine a Momma Rav’s cafe in downtown Palmer — home of “the kindest people you’ll ever run into,” she says — with the same subtle sweetness she has cultivated here.
“When you have a family business, it’s not like any other kind of job,” Rio says, tears still in her voice. “I saw my parents work so hard to build this for me. Now I feel like it’s my turn.”
[Photos by Jennifer Fergesen]