The last day that Ernie Rios’ Filipino restaurant Inay’s Asian Pacific Cuisine was open, people couldn’t stop talking about wanting — needing — that Filipino food fix, one last time.
“One girl, she and her parents have been coming here for a long time, made all of us cry,” said Rios, known as “Uncle Ernie.” “When she left gave me a hug and said, ‘I’ll miss your vinegar!’ ”
He gave her a big jar of the restaurant’s spicy vinegar dipping condiment before she left.
Inay’s (pronounced “in-eyes”) is popular not only for its homey traditional Filipino food — adobo (pork or chicken in vinegar and soy sauce), mechado (beef in a tomato-based sauce), pancit (rice noodles stir fried with vegetables) and more, served cafeteria-style for lunch and family-style at dinner — but for its innovative special events hosted by Seattle’s younger generation of Filipino Americans.
Chera Amlag and Geo Quibuyen’s Food & Sh_t would host Filipino food pop up nights at Inay’s. Drag queen Atasha Manila, who started as a server at Inay’s, established a Friday night drag performance, which required dinner reservations at the small family restaurant.
The restaurant’s final evening featured Manila’s show, which will go on at the nearby Baja Bistro and other locations. Atasha Manila credited Rios for his support.
“I think my family doesn’t know, but Uncle Ernie bought me my first dress,” Manila announced to the fully-booked restaurant. Manila’s drag mother Aleksa Manila served as emcee and reminisced about welcoming nature of the restaurant.
“Those of us who came out as gay, queer, bakla, whatever, Uncle Ernie gave us a home,” Aleksa Manila said.
For many people, Inay’s was a place for after-work meals and family gatherings. Frequent patron Maria Lamarca Anderson, who dropped by the restaurant’s last lunchtime, says Inay’s was comfort, and not just in food.
“So many nights, I would come in and Uncle Ernie would know that I was pained in some way, because I would sit with my back to other patrons,” Anderson wrote in an email. “Toward the end of the meal, a surprise sweet, sometimes two, would show up on the table — whatever he was preparing for his retail customers — and often a container of the most delicious garlic peanuts. And a hug, always.”
Anderson said it’s been her go-to spot, and has been going more often lately since her mother’s health started declining, and she couldn’t cook family meals.
“Where does a Filipina go now? Not just for the food, but for the comfort of home?” Anderson said.
Inay’s is closing because of a rise in rent, Rios says, a common refrain for many local businesses. He said he looked for a location elsewhere in Seattle, but the rents were even higher, for smaller spaces.
“I’m sad,” Rios said on a break on his last Friday. “But I’m also happy because so many people have come in the past two days to say goodbye. I’ve made so many friends through Inay’s. I’m so happy that a lot of people love me.”
Rios, who immigrated from the Filipino province of Cavite in 1972, started the first restaurant in 1991, when his mother Leonila Rios Bobadilla needed a hobby to get out of the house and wanted to work in Rios’ Beacon Hill salon.
“You are not washing hair at my salon,” he remembered telling her. Rios opened that first restaurant on Beacon Avenue at Hanford Street, near the salon. “Inay” is Tagalog for “mom.”
The restaurant was popular enough that Rios — he took his mother’s maiden name after he found people in the U.S. had trouble pronouncing Bobadilla — opened other locations including in Uwajimaya Village and Rios Bar & Grill. He sold the original businesses when his mother died in 2001.
But a few years later Rios became restless. The opportunity to reopen presented itself when the owner of a grocery store on Beacon and 15th asked him if he knew anyone interested in buying the business.
The space had a hood and a grill and was near his house. Rios took it as a sign. He reopened Inay’s on July 7, 2007: 7/7/07.
“When Inay died, I became Inay,” he said with a laugh.
It seems true. Many of his customers greet him with a hug on his last day, and he insists this reporter not pay for her lunch of pinakbet (bitter melon and bean saute flavored with pork skin), dinuguan (pork blood stew) and white rice.
Rios said he didn’t learn to cook until his mother made him watch her at the restaurant, in case she couldn’t come into work one day. There are no recipes.
“You know, Filipino cooking, it’s just a little bit here, and little bit there, no measuring,” he said. “I do the same style here.”
Rios said he plans to retire and take a break for his health. For now.
“If I see an opportunity, you might see Inay’s again. To serve my Seattle family again.”