click to enlarge bartlettimage-inay_s_kitchen-6821.jpg

Photo by Rob Bartlett

Traditional dishes at Filipino restaurant Inay’s Kitchen are as comforting as they are exciting 

Sit and stew

Earlier in the day, before I visited Filipino comfort food bastion Inay's Kitchen in Ocoee, I listened to the "Foodcast" podcast produced by Bon Appetit magazine. In the episode, Rene Redzepi, owner and chef of restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, lamented that Americans only use vinegars for salad dressings and not much else, though other cultures understand vinegar as having the ability to give a dish "just that exact thing it needs" to wake up the palate.

You know who understands a thing or two about vinegars? The women jockeying the stoves at Inay's Kitchen, where many of the thick, hearty stews use vinegar to brighten flavors and deliver a brand-new experience to those of us not as versed in Southeast Asian island-style cooking.

A small dish of rice wine vinegar steeped with tiny diced cucumbers, carrots and other vegetables was served alongside caramelized pork and chicken skewers ($2.99 each), lacquered with sauce and grilled until the sauce became more like candy than anything else. When dipped, the layers of flavor (savory grilled meat, viscous spiced sauce, bright vegetal vinegar) were revelatory. I forwent dipping my piping-hot crisp lumpia, which came two to an order ($2.50), in the sweet, sticky sauce they came with, and popped them into the dish of vinegar instead. Why are we not dipping everything in vinegar?!

We ordered two combination platters, which included two selections from the restaurant's buffet line, plus rice ($10.99 each). To go with the hearty stews, we ordered two Filipino beers, a Red Horse and San Miguel lager.

The cooks at Inay's probably sensed that I came to eat with very little knowledge of Filipino cooking, so they graciously offered samples of each stew before we made our choices. My dining partner zeroed in on the pork adobo and pork steak, which were both solid picks: unctuous, complexly seasoned, and exactly what I want every time the temperature dips below 60 degrees. I picked the menudo (tripe), but my other choice really surprised them: a pork stew called dinuguan, thickened with pork blood. The blood imparts a color that makes the dish's slang name appropriate: "chocolate meat." I was told vinegar is a key ingredient in the dish, as it elevates what otherwise would be a murky and mineral flavor. Be brave; it is so good.

For dessert, we opted for two new gustatory experiences: ube ice cream ($3.99) and a lukewarm coconut pudding called bilo bilo ($6.99). Contrary to what you may have heard, ube is not taro, though it looks and tastes almost exactly the same. The ice cream was not made in-house, but it was floral and exotic and served as a perfect palate cleanser after the onslaught of braised meats and hearty sauces. Bilo bilo is another thing altogether. Served warm, it's a coconut-milk-based dessert that's heavy on the kind of textural diversity for which Asian cuisine is known. My Western palate found the serving temperature a little off-putting, but the flavors and textures were so unique, I couldn't help digging my spoon in repeatedly to see what goodies I'd dig out: tapioca pearls, diced orange and purple yams, corn, jackfruit. I enjoyed it so much – if only for the fun of eating something completely new, an experience far too rare these days.

Inay's Kitchen is located on a dimly lit strip of Clarke Road in Ocoee. It's hard to find, but don't lose hope. The casual decor and friendly welcome perks up the digs, and in the corner, a karaoke machine is ready to go the moment a patron requests a song. We ate to a wordless version of Phil Collins' "In Too Deep," but the food was so good that I barely noticed the monotony of the music.

Several customers picked up to-go orders while we sat in the restaurant alone, and it wouldn't be surprising to me if they were taking some chocolate meat home to nosh in front of Netflix. That's exactly where I want to be, too, next time I hit up Inay's for some comfort food.

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