Sa Aming Nayon
201 1st Avenue, New York NY 10003 (b/n 12th & 13th; map); 212-388-0152
Service: Like eating at your aunt's house.
Setting: Functional, a little cramped, but super friendly.
Must-Haves: Crispy Pata, Sizzling Sisig, Grilled Pork
Cost: Most dishes $3.95 to $11.95
It's a bit tough to define the cuisine of the Philippines. Clearly, there are the typical Southeast Asian sweet, sour, and salty flavors (even savory dishes often sport a sweet element), as well as the cooking methods, which include lots of steaming and simmering. But you'll also find stir-fried dishes that are Chinese in origin, using vegetables brought over by Spanish settlers. Speaking of Spanish influence, some dishes are straight out of spain. Paellas and other rice-based dishes; a thicker, sturdier version of flan; stewed or fried pork—all things that would be equally at home on the Iberian peninsula.
At one point a decade or two ago, Filipino restaurants were as common as Momofukus in the East Village. Those days are long gone, but with the opening of Sa Aming Nayon a few months back, we may be witnessing a rebirth.
The interior at Sa Aming Nayon is perfectly functional, though you shouldn't expect much by way of comforts or amenities. Our meal started in the roofless back patio, which was delightful—until the rain came. With a mad rush, the owner and waiters hustled people around the space inside to make room for our party. We ended up sharing what amounted to essentially a large communal table with the elderly couple next to us. Everyone, staff and customers included, seemed to be having a good time dealing with the mini crisis. Flashbacks of cramped but joyful Thanksgiving dinner came to mind.
For the most part, the food is extraordinarily simple. Don't expect composed plates here—if the menu lists something under the "meat" section, that's all you'll get. You'll have to order vegetables, soups, and salads to round out your meal, as the meat dishes can get quite heavy on their own.
Take the Kare Kare Special ($13.95): Oxtail, tripe, and a few other hard-to-identify-but-tasty meaty bits in a really thick and hearty stew, flavored intensely with peanuts. A side dish of strong shrimp paste is meant to be stirred in to taste as you eat it. It's heavy and rib-sticking fare and perhaps better saved for the winter months.
Chicken Curry ($8.95) is a little lighter, with boneless chunks of chicken thigh that are plenty juicy, in a mildly coconutty sauce with big slivers or fresh ginger. For something genuinely bright, try the Sinigang Na Bangus ($13.50). Fragrant with ginger and fish and sour with tamarind and lemon, like the Filipino version of a Tom Yum, though it lacks the complexity of that dish. Still, it's a simple, homey and comforting bowl of soup with bright vegetables and well-cooked fish.
They're pretty good at grilling too. Chicken and Pork Barbecue ($3.50) comes with two grilled skewers of meat marinated in sweet soy sauce and served with vinegar. Of the two, the pork was far superior. Crisp-edged and deeply charred, it still remained juicy and tender in the center. The same can't be said for the chicken. Next time we'll order the pork on its own.
Speaking of pork, people seem to come here specifically for the Crispy Pata ($11.95)—pretty much every table in the restaurant had one—and with good reason. If you like pork, it's hard to beat. A whole pig foot from the hock down (yep, you've got toenails in there), roasted, then deep fried until really crisp. It's pretty simple, but if you're going to go all one-dimensional, pork is a good dimension to pick.
More pork parts find their way into the Sizzling Sisig ($11.95), a hot cast iron platter full of chopped pigs' ears, onions, and a raw egg. Stir the whole thing up until the egg cooks, squeeze on some lemon, and you've got a dish equally at home at breakfast and dinner.
Off the vegetable section of the menu, Pinakbet ($8.95) is a reasonable bet. A boiled stew of bitter melon, potatoes, carrots, peppers, and shrimp that reminded me a lot of some of the boiled stews of Cambodia. Not particularly bright or flavorful, but satisfying in a homey kind of way.
If the Philippines had a national dish, it'd be Pork Adobo ($7.95), tender chunks of pork braised in sweet soy sauce. The version at Sa Aming Nayon is outstanding. A great balance of sweet and savory flavors, and plenty juicy.
I haven't had flan in the Philippines so I couldn't tell you whether Sa Aming Nayon's is representative. I can tell you that it's far denser and richer than a traditional European or South American flan, with the distinct aroma of orange rinds. It's a small slice, but we found ourselves getting full of it after just a bite or two, and it's a much better option than the Maiz con Yelo ($4.50). Literally translated as "corn with ice," that's exactly what it is: canned corn (we saw the cans) with a scoop of crushed ice on top. No salt, sugar, nothing to it really. Perhaps this is a traditional dessert, but it's a pretty terrible one.
We finished with the Halo-Halo Special ($5.50). Ice cream and purple yam served on top of a bowl of crushed ice floating on top of a syrup studded with candied fruits. The idea is to mix it all together before eating it. I could see enjoying this one if the back garden were hot and sunny instead of rainy like it was during our meal.
A meal here is kind of like eating at the home of a well-intentioned aunt. Perhaps she's not the greatest cook in the world, and perhaps her tastes run simple, but it's warm, fresh, friendly stuff that is very likeable—with service that's about as friendly as it comes.