In the 1990s, the East Village was a veritable little Manila. Filipino businesses congregated here, partly because many area hospitals had hired workers from abroad to fill their staffing needs. But over the past decade, many of the old-time Pinoy eateries—like Elvie’s Turo-Turo, Krystal’s Café, and Pistahan—shuttered, and getting one’s fix required riding the No. 7 train to Woodside. Thanks, though, to Sa Aming Nayon (which means “in our hometown”)—a new casual spot on First Avenue—home-style Filipino cooking has triumphantly returned to the neighborhood.
You won’t encounter the two sparsely decorated dining rooms—each seating about 20 and painted electric red—in Architectural Digest anytime soon. But fear not. Trek to the back patio, where you’ll be greeted by a pergola wrapped in verdant foliage and a resplendent selection of potted plants. This tranquil space easily ranks among the city’s top restaurant secret gardens. Order a couple of refreshing coconut juices ($2.50)—which come with jellylike slivers of the young fruit—and you’ve got yourself a little piece of island living. Just pretend the humming of nearby air conditioners is the sound of Pacific waves.
Navigating the vast menu can be tricky for newbies. Some advice: If you’re a vegetarian, eat elsewhere. Several salads are meat-free, but they don’t add up to dining delight. And bring antacids, since you’re bound to consume a plate or two of fried fare. Most of it, like the tasty spring rolls called lumpia Shanghai ($6.95) or the crackling pork belly known as lechon kawali ($7.95), won’t cause an immediate heart attack. But steer clear of the pure grease gluts, like the ukoy fritters ($4.95) or the sizzling sisig ($11.95), a pig-head hash served with onions and an egg yolk on a hot plate. Finally, cultivate a love of the funk—the region’s cooks have a heavy hand with fermented fish and shrimp paste.
You’ll be safe sticking with the house specials, like the Bicol Express ($8.95), a pork-and-shrimp stew basted in coconut milk with a hint of chile, randomly named after a train in the Philippines. Or tuck into chicken inasal ($8.95), breast meat marinated in vinegar, garlic, and lemongrass before being grilled to charred perfection.
Crispy pata ($11.95), or deep-fried pork leg, is a beloved specialty, but your taste buds will be more excited by pata tim ($12.50), in which a glistening, molasses-based sauce coats the hunkering shin. Peel through the layers of bulbous fat—unless you want to turn into Miss Piggy yourself—and you’ll relish the fork-tender flesh.
Not ready to claw into mountains of meat? Slurp up sinigang, a tangy, tamarind-based fish soup, chock-full of fresh veggies. Bangus—the best erotically named swimmer ever (a/k/a the milkfish)—is the most traditional preparation. Order it boneless ($13.50), though, or you’ll be awkwardly spitting bits of spine into a napkin the whole evening. Ginger whips through the wet rice porridge known as arroz caldo ($5.95)—behold the comfort food you’ll crave when you’re home sick with a cold.
No meal at Sa Aming Nayon is complete without diving into halo-halo ($5.50)—the frozen, sweet equivalent of kitchen-sink soup. In this refreshingly delicious rendition, crushed ice, evaporated milk, sweet beans, flattened young rice, palm seeds, and jackfruit vie for attention in a large coupe, all topped with a chunky nub of purple yam, a scoop of ice cream, and a square of dulce de leche flan. Over the top? Maybe. But perhaps appropriate for a land where a former first lady, Imelda Marcos, once owned a whopping 2,700 pairs of shoes. Nothing exceeds like excess.