When I set out to sample Manila Bay's food, I wasn't prepared to don my Sherlock Holmes persona but sleuthing quickly became the order of the day. Once inside on a weekday afternoon, I was confronted with no menus and no other identification for the murky cauldrons that "fleshed" out the buffet (vegetarians be advised). My Dr. Watson arrived in the form of a Filipino server, friendly and game to help me figure out what would quell the audible growls from my stomach.
Manila Bay bills itself as Boise's source for authentic Filipino food and offers a rotating assortment of dishes on a buffet. Certain staples of the Philippines, like adobo (considered by some to be the "national dish" of the island nation), have permanent real estate on the service line. Borrowed from the Spanish language, adobo refers to a popular cooking process that involves soy sauce, crushed garlic, bay leaves and vinegar.
Happily aware that vinegar inhibits bacterial growth, I was less intimidated by the fact that both the chicken adobo and the pork adobo appeared to have been sitting in their stainless serving trays for quite a while. This resulted in limp red peppers, but the sturdy hunks of potato and meat stayed moist in their reddish-brown sauce. Water glass in hand, I was ready for heat, but the sauce was mild and needed a splash of chile paste to liven it up. Even chile paste couldn't remedy the fact that the chunks of pork in almost every dish I tried had a fatty rind at least a half-inch thick.
As one might expect from a primarily island cuisine, seafood plays a starring role at Manila Bay. Rubbery squid bumped up against steamed mussels still in their shells, but the most memorable flavor came from the milkfish in a neighboring pan. Despite an infusion of lemon juice, it was overwhelmingly musky, the earthiness consistent with the mangrove swamps where these mature fish dwell. Notorious for being much bonier than other fish, it made for a challenging chew.
On a second visit--in the evening this time--I was relieved to find most of the dishes brighter and satisfyingly firmer in texture, though disappointed that my favorite item from my first encounter, a creamy curried chicken, wasn't there. Thank goodness for the familiarity of the lumpia, a crispy sleeve encasing shredded cabbage, carrot and ground beef or pork, reminiscent of what most of us might identify as a spring roll. No particular dish stood out to me, but a trio of soy sauce, chile paste and something sweet-and-sour with a touch of garlic added intrigue to the ongoing mystery of my dining experience.
For $10.99 per person, this Filipino buffet struck me as an over-priced lunch option, but worthy as an evening adventure and a chance to play international detective.
--Sarah Barber says "Elementary, my dear Watson," far too often.
Boise Weekly sends two reviewers to every restaurant we review. Read what our other reviewer had to say about Manila Bay.