Common wisdom is that seekers of decent, authentic Filipino food need to trek southward from The City, into the badlands of the Peninsula. Here in San Francisco, offerings are meager.
But if you want a dose of in-town authenticity, a Filipino meal to placate the purists, your destination is obvious: the mall food court.
Cue quizzical eyebrows. OK, but wait until you hear the mission statement of Ináy’s Filipino Kitchen in the Metreon. “Our goal is to expose people to real Filipino food outside of Little Manila [in Daly City],” said managing partner Manuel Ramirez.
See restaurant information and location below.
Ináy is a family affair; Ramirez’s mother owns the three-location minichain. All three Ináy’s sites are in malls, typically the provenance of grease-drenched rubber pizza and “Chinese” food that even most takeout joints would frown upon.
Can you get Filipino mainstays such as lumpia and pork adobo? Sure thing, and they will be pretty good. But why not try something a little more adventurous before you check out that boring “Die Hard” sequel at the cineplex?
I started with the sisig fries, Ináy’s sneaky way of luring newcomers into trying a semi-intimidating Filipino staple. It’s pork, sauteed onions, melted cheese and Sriracha ranch on top of shoestring fries, which sounds palatable in a gut-bomb sort of way.
But the pork was actually shoulder, cheek and ears (no liver) in a soy-citrus marinade, and the dish was loaded with quirky touches such as banana ketchup, cubes of diced mango and an over-easy egg on top. It’s familiar, yet foreign.
Digging a little deeper, I tried the tofu and eggplant dish served with crispy garlic and shallots in a sweet chili-oyster sauce. The Philippines have been subject to a host of neighboring influences, and this one had Chinese inflections.
From the Spanish-influenced side, Ináy served a fine caldereta, a tomato-based, cumin-heavy Filipino beef stew. Goat would have been more traditional, but it was still a tasty introduction to the dish.
I dug the lumpia, but there wasn’t much difference from an egg roll here. And the barbecue pork skewers were impressively tender, but familiar.
If you want a new kind of finger food, I suggest the turon, a deep-fried banana in a spring roll wrapper. It’s probably better to order before it bakes too long under the heat lamp, but hey. It’s the mall.
My adventurousness hit a wall with Ináy’s dinuguan, a purple-black stew of pork offal and blood. Even spooned over garlic rice, the flavor proved far too intense for my delicate palate. My Filipina dining companion gave me a free pass: “I used to be served dinuguan as a kid. That was before I could choose what to eat.”
Even dessert was a foray into something new and strange. The halo-halo was a mad hatter’s concoction of shaved ice, candied plantain, kidney beans, ube ice cream, jackfruit, Jell-O, sweet cream, leche flan and probably some other things too. With each bite, I felt like I was on an archaeological dig, mining for new treasures. Weird, but worth it.
My Filipina friend gave Ináy a big thumbs-up. It wasn’t the best homeland food she’s tried in the Bay, but it came close.
Plus, she had to admire the boldness in its approach. “I mean seriously, how are they serving this in the mall food court?”