Pista Sa Nayon 

I recently ventured west to taste the unique cuisine of the Philippines. An unscheduled "Closed" sign twice foiled my sampling of Boise's only Philippine restaurant. But these small deflections piqued my determination to succeed in the quest for a food adventure. On the third attempt, I pulled into the strip mall parking lot and was met with success. The neon sign was on. The doors were unlocked and a friendly man greeted my companion and me at the door. I could hardly contain my sense of triumph. After three tries, we had found Pista Sa Nayon open--and we were ready to eat.

The greeter--who is also the owner--gave us menus (complete with Tagalog glossary on the back page) and a welcome pitcher of ice water with lemon slices. The selection of three appetizers seemed a bit slim; the owner, now also our culinary guide, recommended the lumpiang shanghai (egg rolls) to start. When I asked about the atchara (sweet pickled green papaya), he offered to bring us a sample. Over the slender, meaty (and somewhat over-crisped) egg rolls and the gingery, sweet atchara, my dining partner read phrases aloud from the glossary.

The menu hinted at the influences in Philippine history: Chinese, Indian, Spanish and American elements are all apparent in the cuisine. From chop suey and pancit canton (one of three noodle dishes offered), to spicy Indian shrimp with chili and coconut, this restaurant offers something for every mood and palate. While vegetarians may find the menu uninviting, based on the hospitality of the owner and the skill of his wife, who is both manager and chef, they may accommodate meat-free requests.

I was fascinated by the novel preparation of fish in Philippine cooking. The nation's tropical location also means lots of exotic (to me) ingredients like coconut, green papaya, purple sweet potato, bitter melon, jasmine rice and patis (fish sauce). Indigenous recipes like kare-kare (oxtail and tripe with vegetables in peanut sauce) and tinolang manok (chicken vegetable stew with ginger and green papaya) looked particularly appealing. They also typified the differences between Philippine and Southeast Asian approaches to cooking; more emphasis on meat and poultry and potatoes, and less prominence given to tofu, coconut milk and hot spices found in typical Thai and Vietnamese recipes.

I decided to try pinakbet--string beans, okra, squash, eggplant and bitter melon stir-fried with baby shrimp in shrimp paste. Despite the owner's caution that the dish was fishy-smelling, I found it delicious, rich and filling. My companion chose the most American-sounding item on the menu: bistek, Philippine-style beef strips sauteed with onion and topped with thick slices of fried potato. This dish was irresistible, despite (or maybe because of) its oily layers of sauce. We both ate our fill and still had leftovers. Of course, we saved room for dessert. The selection of sweets included Leche flan (a variant of the ubiquitous Spanish dessert), casba cake (a sweet potato custard), and halo halo especial, a Philippine parfait that pairs flan and milk with sweet red beans, ube yam jelly and tapioca pearls. We decided to share the buko salad: strips of fresh coconut, tender cubes of nata de coco (green coconut jelly) and sweet white beans mixed with fruit cocktail and a sweet, creamy white sauce which, in fact, epitomized my experience at Pista Sa Nayon. It's comfortable hospitality, and the addictive appeal of the homey mixed with the exotic. Like traveling a long way for a home-cooked meal, or food just unfamiliar enough to stir up your multi-cultural soul.

--Gretchen Jude believes a life devoid of the exotic is not a life well-lived.

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