Whether you’re familiar with Philippine food or venturing into the complicated cuisine for the first time, Kamayan is likely to be a delight.
The restaurant, which opened six months ago on Buford Highway, buzzes with activity from Thursday night dinner service through Sunday brunch. A staff member will ask whether you have a reservation, which is recommended. There often are large parties feasting at a leisurely pace. Having a reservation will give you priority over walk-in customers.
Once you’re seated, a meal at Kamayan becomes a self-directed project. The menu includes helpful, well-written descriptions of each dish, but the service style can leave first-time visitors feeling adrift. Owners Mia Orino and Carlo Gan have said they plan to expand their service level over time, but for now orders are placed at a counter and must be paid for immediately. Ordering multiple courses means multiple trips to the counter.
That said, the frenetic energy of the place, along with the adorable tropical decor and busy but friendly staff, creates a positive atmosphere that encourages diners to be brave.
As for appetizers, go ahead and order all three versions of the lumpia, or deep-fried spring rolls. The pork lumpia, with traditional spices ground into the meat, was the most flavorful, but some diners might prefer the shrimp or veggie incarnations. Just watch out for the shrimp tails.
The barbecue skewers were tasty, as well. We tried the chicken version, slathered in a sweet, sticky sauce.
Those looking for a challenge can try the sugpo, a plateful of skewered, grilled prawns, still with their heads and shells. It’s an incredibly beautiful dish for seafood lovers, like something you’d cook on the beach after pulling in these huge, fresh shrimp in a casting net, but peeling the prawns is a messy, laborious process.
You’ll go through plenty of Kamayan’s flimsy napkins eating these finger foods; if there’s one obvious opportunity for improvement in the restaurant, it’s the napkin quality.
If you want a second round of appetizers, don’t skip over the noodles. We tried the pansit Bihon-Canton mix, a hearty heap of thin, glassy rice noodles and thicker wheat noodles with vegetables, chicken and Chinese sausage. The composition was rich, without being oily — a hearty dish that would make an excellent takeout dinner.
It seems hard to go wrong with Kamayan’s main dishes — nearly everything we tried landed somewhere on a scale from good to excellent. The eggplant coconut curry and a special of jackfruit coconut curry both featured large chunks of vegetables luxuriating in a rich, creamy gravy that hit both sweet and savory notes. Chicken adobo — bone-in dark-meat chicken quarters braised in a tart, sweet sauce and topped with tingly peppercorns — fell right off the bone.
One of the most visually spectacular dishes is the whole fried pompano, a flat, round fish that is scored on the sides and served with a variety of sides. The fish is sold at market price, which came out to $22 on our visit, making it one of the most expensive dishes on the menu. The pompano is fried hard, and the crispy skin can be difficult to tackle with a regular fork or spoon. When we asked, Kamayan’s staff cheerfully provided us with serving utensils.
No matter how full you might be after placing multiple orders, you’ll probably want to make a final trip to the counter for one of Kamayan’s desserts, several of which make use of ube, or purple yam. Many customers order halo-halo, a drink made of shaved ice, evaporated milk and jam. It comes with a spectacular array of toppings and decorations, including candy, marshmallows, a candy straw and a dollop of vivid purple ube ice cream.
The baked goods also are a wonderful option, with beautiful choices, such as ube flan and dulce de leche cake.
But the star of the dessert menu is the gorgeous ube churros, fried fresh and sprinkled with purple sugar and ube icing.
Kamayan already is a home run, with the owners having used their resourcefulness as pop-up chefs to create a vibrant restaurant that pumps out delicious food with incredible efficiency.
If they are able to transition to more of a full-service restaurant, with a few more creature comforts — and, hopefully, some sturdier napkins — the sky is the limit for Kamayan.
2 out of 4 stars (very good)
Food: Philippine cuisine
Service: friendly, efficient; counter only
Recommended dishes: baguio beans, shrimp lumpia, pork lumpia, chicken barbecue skewers, grilled prawns, pineapple-cured pork with rice and fried egg, pansit Bihon-Canton mix noodle stir-fry, chicken adobo, eggplant coconut curry, fried pompano, kare kareng baka (beef peanut stew), ube flan, ube churros
Vegetarian dishes: baguio beans, veggie lumpia, pansit Bihon-Canton mix (can be made vegetarian), eggplant coconut curry, vegan kare kare stew, all desserts
Price range: $-$$
Hours: 5-9 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 12-4 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Saturdays, 12-5 p.m., Sundays
Parking: free lot parking
MARTA: a mile from Doraville station
Outdoor dining: no
Address, phone: 5150 Buford Highway NE, Doraville. 678-938-3584
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