Step one: get into law school. Step two: Leave law school in order to preserve your family’s Filipino-American legacy. Easy, right? Chef Manuel Ramirez III, his broad forearms resting on a table at his Metreon eatery Inay Kitchen, strikes me with his calm, matter-of-fact manner as he recounts his story.
“I was in law school at USF, and then we had an illness in the family: my father passed away and my mother was falling ill, so I had to handle the family business,” he tells me over the the din of a Friday afternoon movie crowd at the Metreon. A matinée showing of Wonder Woman has just let out, and a small crowd is forming around the windowed grill at Manuel’s restaurant, Inay’s Kitchen, smoking with the intoxicating smells of barbecue pork sticks. Some in the crowd point as fire licks up and the meat sizzles, the grill-man casually leaning back to duck the flames. Manuel smiles slightly at the sound of happy customers, and tells me how food has always formed a part of his family’s identity.
“We had a grocery store -- a small Filipino grocery store [in Stockton] ... like half the size of a Seafood City, and I grew up working there. And I dropped out of law school and started [managing] it. And I fell in love with it, with the culinary experience. It was open from 1997 to 2016, so it was a pretty good run.”
That good run is continuing at Inay Kitchen. With his mother as a partner, Manuel and his crew serve up a full spread of fragrant, traditional Filipino fiesta dishes -- think Bicol Express, Sisig, and Pancit Palabok -- in a Metreon environment that otherwise evokes plainer, paper-wrapped fare like hotdogs and sandwiches. Manuel explains how this restaurant reflects his family’s dinner table discussions about the comparative dearth of Filipino restaurants around the City in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“My family always sat down at the dinner table and would wonder, ‘Why is our cuisine so under-represented?’ So that was something we were very passionate about. So many other [Southeast Asian] cuisines have been able to go mainstream. And given our background [with the grocery store], that was something [me and my mother] wanted to take on.”
I notice a steady stream of customers flowing from the theater exit and toward the smoking barbecue. Most of them are young and look like they are on vacation, but there’s also a good amount of professionals in line, taking a late lunch. Manuel explains how important it was to his mother that the food reflect her philosophy of Filipino cuisine -- one that seeks to welcome newcomers to the flavors of Filipino food without compromising classic approaches. “Our whole mission statement was to create a business that could help expose Filipino cuisine to the person that’s had it maybe once or twice at a party, or never had it before. But then, at the same time, make a product that Balikbayans, or people who grew up eating the food, or people from the Philippines, can feel is a real representation of the culture. We wanted to be in a mainstream [location] but we didn’t want to be Panda Express -- and my mother was passionate about the idea that we can’t give people Filipino food for the first time in their lives in a tortilla,” he says.
Fulfilling the vision of the elder generations is very important to Manuel, but he’s also adaptable, offering dishes like lechon nachos and sisig fries -- a nod to the carne asada fries popular in southern California -- alongside his traditional turo-turo menu. He explains how these decisions tie into his own personal history with Filipino cuisine.
“You can’t believe in what you can’t see. And growing up, I never saw Filipino food represented in a vehicle the way we are trying to. We wanted to be a risk taker to bring Filipino food to a mainstream, high-end location, where everybody goes. Because one of the real obstacles around people trying Filipino food is a lot of non-Filipino people might not feel comfortable going to a Seafood City shopping center to go eat ... so we wanted to open in a place like we chose, the Metreon, and we also were open at the Great Mall in Milpitas and Westfield Mall in Fairfield, so we wanted to open in mainstream locations. Right now, we do 60 percent of our business with non-Filipino customers, but we do have that core of Filipino customers who live and work in the area. I love the Manongs and Manangs -- a lot of them live on fixed incomes, and they’re coming in, they like the product, and I feel like we’re in a good location to serve them as well.”
But he’s also firmly committed to developing the palettes of those less familiar with the dishes on his menu.
“I see it every day -- people come in here every day and try something like Bicol Express or especially Dinuguan -- which we used to do as a special but we got so much support that we had to put it on our daily menu. And it’s a relationship of trust. Someone will come in and try lumpia, and three or four visits down the line they are like, ‘I’m going to try dinuguan!’ What we try to do is try to show that even the most ‘exotic’ parts of our cuisine have something that they can relate to.”
Judging by the long line forming as we wrap up our interview, he’s succeeded in doing that. And he’s confident that UNDSCVRD can provide an even greater sense of the cultural learning experiences he and his mother have sought to create at Inay Kitchen.
“People love the atmosphere of a night market, it’s sort of been romanticized in the last few years, and to do a Filipino-themed one is a great way to kind of shock the local food scene and a great way for people in one visit to get exposure to all the Filipino entrepreneurial projects in San Francisco. So I feel like what we do at Inay Kitchen is right in line with UNDSCVRD: I want people to have a cultural experience. They might try something simple that piques their interest and whets their palette and makes them want to learn more.”
Look for Inay Kitchen’s menu of bangus silog, binagoongan rice plates, pork bbq with pancit, and kimchi fried rice at the UNDSCVRD Night Market on August 18 at the Old Mint.