Two fried fish heads sit in a chafing dish at one end of the buffet. Another dish is filled with tiny squid in an opaque purple sauce and yet another with bright yellow curry. Fatty chunks of bacon. Pan-fried noodles with chicken. Lean adobo pork. Whole chicken legs and hunks of potato in a tomato sauce. Sour soup. Vegetable beef soup. Crispy spring rolls. A huge vat of steamed white rice. All-you-can-eat ($10.99).
Filipino restaurant Manila Bay sits in a stand-alone building on Fairview between Milwaukee and Maple Grove streets, between Popeye's Chicken and Five Guys Burgers. On a Saturday night at a little after 8 p.m., we are the only diners at Manila Bay. A soon-to-be-setting sun beams through the two walls of floor-to-ceiling windows, as we take in the 20 or so square cloth-less tables in the unadorned but clean space. Our appearance is greeted with a mixture of surprise and smiles, quickly followed by an explanation of the protein in each pan and what dishes are spicy.
While a few of the chafing dishes are full, others, like the fish head dish, have mostly just the dregs of their contents left; they look like they've been siting there since lunch. The "Watch Your Step" signs plastered all around the sneeze guard are apparently not enough of a warning and I trip stepping up to the buffet, wondering why the platform is there at all. Only the steamed rice has a lid (and is therefore hot) so we spoon out big helpings of rice. We hesitantly take smaller portions of most of the dozen or so options (except for the lilac squid in coconut milk), and take our plates--and a condiment selection of vinegar, shoyu and fish sauce--to a table where we can see the TV, turned to a Spanish-language game show.
We are as surprised as the three employees when a Filipino family of four walks in. We surmise they are there for the first time, too, and are soon engaged with the employees in a happy, hearty conversation in Tagalog. We are also surprised to find that while the sauce-based dishes have unappetizingly been sitting for far too long, the dry adobo cooked pork and bacon chunks are very tender and well-seasoned. The spring rolls are burnt on the ends, but don't taste bad with a shake or two of fish sauce and the rice is perfectly sticky and has held up well. We don't finish what is on our plates and we don't go back for seconds, but we're pleased to see the father of the family go back a third time.
Since opening in the fall of 2009, Manila Bay has changed from a full-service restaurant to buffet service only and on Thursday, Aug. 5, plans to reduce its hours to Wednesday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m. When so many restaurants are closing, bringing the focus in tight and staying open only 20 hours per week may be the way to go. Though I still might not try the squid, I'm willing to give the buffet another try (but I'm going as soon as the doors open next time).
--Amy Atkins is so busy watching everyone else's steps, she seldom watches her own.
Boise Weekly sends two reviewers to every restaurant we review. Read what our other reviewer had to say about Manila Bay.