Prometheus Brown's (of Blue Scholars fame) new restaurant Food and (expletive) cheats. It cheats because everything tastes better when you eat it with your hands. Starting with the first bite of last Monday’s Kamayan pop up: a crackle of fried shrimp with a pop of sour sinigang soup. It cheats because food tastes better with a story, and if there’s anything hip hop star and pop-up founder Prometheus Brown knows how to do, it’s spin a compelling tale.
Tales taste better when swallowed with surprisingly crunchy shrimp tails (and heads and bodies). The pop up in Inay’s, a Filipino restaurant on Beacon Hill, cheats because there’s no other way that his pop up could possibly glide so easily over the execution and over-ambition errors endemic in pop ups.
The typical errors that had me fearing the worst for overcooked seafood on a menu that includes cuttlefish, clams, mussels, and crab. In fact, if it weren’t for the last Monday’s dinner having run out of balut (fertilized, partially-developed duck egg), I’d be calling it perfect. Instead, I’m just wondering why diners—and investors—aren’t knocking down his door.
The third Monday of each month the restaurant pops up with a theme expressed in an essay on Filipino cultural and the meaning behind the food. In most trendy restaurants, names of farms and farmers attached to chickens are the height of sourcing. Brown sources from a deeper place: from his and his colleagues’ cultural identities. That identity was palpable in the pomelo mango salad—two fruits commonly seen in the cuisine married with calamansi—uniquely and emblematically Filipino--and fish sauce. At Kamayan, we weren’t eating with our hands because it makes the food taste better or because it’s fun to play with your food (though both are true). Rather, it was a call back to pre-colonial times in the Philippines—forks and spoons came from the Europeans—when that was how everyone ate.
It’s not that it was easy, with a North American upbringing, to reach into the communal rice and dig under the pico de gallo-stuffed grilled cuttlefish to dig out the twice-cooked adobo chicken gizzards (it’s not often one gets to use “tender” in relation to gizzards, but these were incredibly so). It’s that the digging is necessary to get the full understanding of these foods. To look back at whom these come from, and why they eat them. And also, that it was fully worth it, as it was the only way to get the gizzards, whose soft texture and vinegar-spike sauce performed a seductive dance—not something small brown blobs often do.
In his accompanying essay, Brown is careful to present his stance as accessible, explaining that this food was made for hand-eating, much like pizza, and it would be odd to use cutlery. Surely, anyone who has ever eaten Dungeness crab would agree—here served with calamansi butter, roasted red potatoes, and boiled corn. He balances priorities, though, lest it be seen as a rebellion, rather than a revolution, suggesting that this is not a “yearning for pre-colonial days,” but rather a nod to his forebears, an acknowledgement of history as he moves forward. And brings on the calamansi lemon bar for dessert.