On a corner of north Beacon Hill—one block away from the Sound Transit depot, across the street from the Shell station famous for its fried catfish—sits one of the city's most magical outposts of awesomeness. Inay's Asian Pacific Cuisine is first and foremost a restaurant, specializing in the food of the Philippines: sweet and spicy amalgamations of fish, fruit, rice, and MEATMEATMEAT. Beef and chicken make appearances, but pork is the star, with the menu showcasing the gifts of the pig from snout to butt. The cooking is home-style, literally just like mama used to make—the recipes come from the owner's dear departed mother, the menu is graced by a photo of the owner's dear departed mother, and inay means "mother" in Tagalog.
"My mother had 11 children, a bunch of grandchildren, and my dad, and she cooked for us all," says Inay's owner, Ernesto Rios, better known as Ernie, an ever-present, ever-smiling presence at the restaurant. "In the afternoon, everyone flocked to her house." In the 1970s, Ernie's family moved from the Philippines to Hawaii, then came to Seattle in 1978. "I worked in a hospital, went to beauty school, bought a house, cut hair, and made enough money to buy my mother a restaurant," Ernie says. She passed away in 2001. Ernie took a break from the business until 2007, when he created Inay's, bringing his mother's kitchen back to life.
The output of its kitchen might be Inay's primary attraction (online reviews of the food are almost uniformly rapturous), but there's also Louie—server extraordinaire, hilarity incarnate, and one-person Friday-night drag show.
Even in boy clothes, Louie all but bristles with glamour, sashaying around the dining room to a soundtrack of RuPaul's "Jealous of My Boogie" while hauling plates laden with Filipino goodness. Greatest hit of our table: tilapia cooked and served in a spicy soup of coconut milk, jalapeño, and ginger ($8.95), which does amazing things when combined with Inay's savory rice. Runner up: the Shanghai lumpia appetizer, featuring ground beef rolled in a lumpia wrapper and deep-fried, served in exceedingly generous portions ($5.95 bought 10 of the things, highly praised for their "dense meatiness"). Less popular: the fresh lumpia ($7.95), a burrito-like creation involving heavily sautéed vegetables (carrots, onion, yam) wrapped in lumpia and drenched in a fragrant peanut sauce. However, the chow-meiny mush of vegetables and somewhat gelatinous sweetness of the dish are said to be beloved components of Filipino food, and the fresh lumpia is said to be exactly right. If the restaurant's legions of fans are to be trusted, Inay's makes Filipino food as it should be; if you don't like Inay's version of a dish, you just don't like that dish.
At Inay's on Friday at 7:00 p.m., we're greeted by a smiling Louie in accomplished drag face: nose and cheekbones sculpted with shadow, and gorgeous, high-drama eyes. While waiting tables during dinner, Louie—or Atasha, as she's known in drag—also performs. Tonight's show begins with Atasha emerging from the back room in glorious full drag—cocktail dress, platform heels, relaxed Afro wig—and announcing, "Okay, everyone, I'm going to do a number now." It's "Family," from Dreamgirls, which begins to play over the sound system as Atasha positions herself among the 15 or so diners. There's a happy crew of predominately Caucasian friends who've come specifically to watch Atasha, as well as a couple tables of hungry Filipino-food fans who had no idea what they were in for.
Surprise drag at 7:00 p.m. in a fully lit restaurant sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Atasha Makes It Work. Singing in full voice along with the recording, Atasha lords over the crowd, locking eyes with audience members, pawing herself in mock horniness, and punctuating a song's climax by ripping off her wig. One number follows another, interrupted only by costume and wig changes (four in an hour!) and the call of food service. By the time Atasha gets to her unhinged rendition of RuPaul's "Tranny Chaser"—the refrain of which ("Just because you want me, that don't make you gay!") she barks at point-blank range at a presumably heterosexual male diner, causing his date to howl into her napkin—the crowd is beside itself with glee. Somehow, the overhead lighting, the Filipino kitchen smells, and Atasha's ferociously deadpan divahood combine to create a perfect storm of hilarity. Around the room, diners are wiping away tears. A bell rings, Atasha crows, "That means I gotta get the food!" and, spinning on her platform heel, she's off to the kitchen.
Behind every waiter who spices up his Friday-night shift with a high-octane drag performance, there's a restaurant owner who lets a waiter spice up his Friday-night shift with a high-octane drag performance. For Ernie, the decision was totally natural: "Louie likes to dress up, and one time he decided he wanted to work in drag, and I encouraged him." Inay's Friday Night Drag started with Louie dressing up to do his waiting job, but soon morphed to incorporate full performances, with Ernie's enthusiastic blessing. "The Filipino community loves drag shows," says Ernie. He talks about the culture's acceptance of a not-male/not-female "third sex." "They're not homophobic. Filipinos love gay people."
With the weekly drag night gaining popularity—Friday diners are encouraged to make a reservation—Ernie is open to eventually hosting shows all weekend, but for now his plate is full with food. He's joining forces with Luis Rodriguez (owner of new and already beloved Beacon Hill coffeehouse the Station) to open Taqueria Frida, situated on the same block as Inay's and scheduled for a November opening. And he's in perpetual talks with his friend Dave Nakamura—aka Super Dave, the sushi-chef superhero—to "give Beacon Hill the sushi restaurant it deserves."
For now, there's his six-days-a-week schedule at Inay's, which he supplements by spending his Mondays cutting hair. As an admitted workaholic with long-standing community connections, has Ernie ever considered a foray into local politics? "Never! I'm not a politician. I hate politics. But I love Seattle. I would never move out of Seattle. I love it here."