Unless you’re a foodie, you can be forgiven for walking down Ludlow without noticing Kuma Inn. It’s a not-so-secret hidden gem tucked away in the second floor of what used to be a tenement house. After a walk up the steep, graffiti-laden staircase, there’s an open kitchen where Chef King Phojanakong makes Filipino food tapas-style. King was raised with Filipino and Thai influences, and was exposed to some of the worlds greatest chefs before starting at Kuma Inn. Lori and I had reservations and were taken to a corner table under a flickering lamp. The entire restaurant was dimly lit, so forgive me for the quality of the images.
One of the specials of the night was the Steamed Pork Buns. The pulled pork is stuffed in incredibly soft and fluffy mantou. The tender meat was bursting with a sweetly tangy taste, partly from the pickled daikon and peanut hoisin sauce topping the pork. Although it packed an impressive flavor, the only downside was the thick mantou. I suspect the bread-to-meat ratio may have been intended to balance out the intensity of the pork, and since the bread was good, I won’t hold it against them.
The most popular item on their menu is the Sautéed Chinese Sausage. The flat, circular pieces of meat are infused with a sweetness from seared onions, and have a chewy texture. Besides the sticky rice, you get a side of King’s thai chili-lime sauce, which adds another dimension of flavor to the small plate. It’s an incendiary and tangy experience, and I wish it was possible to bottle it for everything I eat. This was easily my favorite plate.
The Baby Octopus plate arrived with pickled bamboo shoots that were sharply sour. The octopus was difficult to enjoy at first because it was tough to chew through, but I was able to absorb more of the flavor that way. I particularly liked the crispy ends of the tentacles.
The Pork Tonkatsu had a beautifully golden color and the panko breading gave a satisfying crunch to every piece. The pork was pan-fried in beurre noisette to perfection. On the side was a watercress salad drizzled in lime butter, which added a small savory element to an otherwise bland salad.
What Kuma Inn lacks in decoration, it more than makes up for with its menu. Every item had my taste buds working overtime and delivered a different experience. Because it’s tapas style plates, you can have fun sharing a meal. It’s one of the few remaining BYOB restaurants in the city, so bring a bottle of your favorite booze and be aware of the corkage fee. All of the plates ranged from $9-12 each, so you’ll spend well over $20 to leave on a full stomach. It’s cash only, and despite its hidden status, a reservation is recommended. It’s not a place I can eat at regularly, but I’ll definitely be back to sample the rest of the menu. It’s a great spot for a casual date, and maybe you’ll win cool points for knowing about Kuma Inn.
Fun Fact: kumain in Filipino, means to eat.