The Baguio (Eating) Habit

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There are things that never get old, like sipping freshly brewed coffee in the morning, feet curled up on a chair while looking at the sun’s rays cut through a slowly dissipating wad of fog. Baguio, that city in the mountains, is one of those places that offer such simple daily pleasures. It’s a habit that’s hard to break, by any means.

I came to Baguio as a student nearly 10 years ago, and I am one of the many who have since decided to call it home. Since then, Baguio ceased to be just the so-called Summer Capital of the country, a weekend getaway, an escape from the heat and humidity of the lowlands. Days in the city weren’t numbered by the weekends, and they weren’t spent merely paddling a boat across Burnham Lake either.

Living in Baguio does have its quirks, such as 7:30 AM classes on the second semester, the everyday life-altering decision of taking a shower, or the equally difficult chore of washing dirty dishes using ice-cold tap water. But for leisurely walks under the cool, crisp air; freshly ground, fragrant Benguetgrown coffee; and sweet, hot strawberry taho, I’d endure the ice-cold water any day.

It took no time for me to get comfortable with the thought that living in Baguio is like being perpetually on vacation (and that it’s perfectly okay to not feel guilty about it too often). But if there is one thing I absolutely love doing in this city, it’s eating.

Baguio binge, and art in between

With at least four big universities, Baguio hosts thousands of students all year long. As far as dining is concerned, this has made the city a very affordable—nay, cheap—place for dining, both for residents and tourists. And Baguio being Baguio—located up north, about 5,000 feet over sea level—fresh, good produce from the fertile hills of Benguet and the rest of the Cordillera is a norm rather than an exception.

To be exceptional, food in Baguio doesn’t have to be all-fancy; it could be as simple as pan de sal fresh off the ovens of Danes or Sunshine, bought after a few rounds of early-morning jogging around Burnham Park. It could also be the 15-peso strawberry taho, that quintessential Filipino soya-based snack, with strawberry chunks and syrup, sold along the streets of Baguio, mostly at hightraffic tourist areas like Burnham, Mines View, and Wright Park.

And they don’t exactly have to look appealing as well. A pell-mell assemblage of cream and chocolate, Chona’s Delight (from an old favorite, Tea House) is probably the most heavenly tub of P130 anybody can buy in the city (and it comes in strawberry and caramel variants, too). Good Taste, popular among the local crowd, is another case in point: the shady-looking entrance and interior of the older of its two branches can shoo away anybody who doesn’t know the place for what it is. And affordable, honest-to-goodness delicious food is what Good Taste is about. Its signature dish, the buttered chicken, is popular among groups of students or families. Half a serving, which costs P145, is enough to feed three to four hungry people, and when coupled with one other dish off their extensive menu, one can easily spend just P100 and go home waddling from too much food. Good Taste’s popularity (and undoubtedly, profitability) is such that it has opened a multi-level branch along Cariño Street, just a block away from Burnham Park and right next to the strip of hotels along Legarda Road. This branch, which can accommodate more people, always sees diners lining up for seats on weekends, but it’s something the staff has dealt with efficiently each time. The clatter of spoons and the chatter of diners are a staple, but these easily become non-issues as soon as the food comes in.

Some food haunts are also as much about the space as it is about the food: Volante, which occupies the former Session Theater building along Session Road, is open 24 hours and serves breakfast all day; six-inch pizzas at less than P100—from vegetarian to four-cheese to pesto; refillable brewed coffee at P28; and salads with salmon, shrimp, or roast chicken at around P130. Great food, student-friendly prices, excellent location, reliable opening hours—Volante has since been a go-to place for me, even as a student. Nothing beats having favorites such as the Choco Vanilla Affair (piping hot chocolate pudding topped with vanilla ice cream) at the ungodly hour of 1 AM.

Throughout my years in Baguio, I have, unfortunately, seen some household names close shop, such as Sunshine Lunch at the base of Session Road (their siopao is one of the city’s best), and, after 74 long years, Star Cafe. But it’s also fascinating to see previously decrepit structures restored, such as what happened a few years ago to Casa Vallejo, an American-period structure that had been lying forlorn on one side for as long as I could remember. This building has since been transformed into one of Baguio’s most interesting spaces: it combines Casa Vallejo (hotel); Hill Station (restaurant), Mt. Cloud (bookshop), North Haven (spa), and Cinematheque Baguio (theater).

Included in the Miele Guide’s 2011/2012 and 2012/2013 editions, Hill Station brings back Baguio’s rustic charm and marries it with lovingly crafted food. Selections are varied, from the classic Filipino breakfast of Baguio longganisa to tapang usa (wild deer) or baboy damo (wild boar). There are also pastas (Short Rib Ragu with Fettuccine and Linguine with Sundried Tomatoes and Pecorino); slowcooked stews (Spanish Callos, Cambodian Coriander and Garlic Chicken, Ceylon Shrimp Curry, and Moroccan Spiced Baby Back Ribs, among others).

There are also places that have been around for so long and haven’t lost their flair. Mario’s, which opened its doors in 1971, still serves the city’s best Caesar Salad, and its Mango Jubilee Flambé is always worth the spectacle.

When it comes to Asian fare, Baguio establishments are a select but precious few. For Japanese cuisine, nothing comes close to Chaya. A home converted into a dining space along a nondescript area of Legarda Road, Chaya serves perhaps the city’s best home-made green tea ice cream, as well as steaming bowls of rich sukiyaki and crisp, flavorful tempuras. For other Asian cuisines, there’s Chef’s Home along Outlook Drive for Malaysian food and Happy Tummy and Rumah Sate of Ketchup Food Community for Thai and Indonesian, respectively.

Simply referred to as Ketchup, this collective of restaurants along Romulo Drive across Wright Park is always full of diners for good reason: with five restaurants to choose from, and with cross-orders possible, Ketchup offers unbeatable variety at very competitive prices. Half a slab of heavenly lomo ribs at Canto—which can feed two average-sized persons—costs only P190.

Meanwhile, a walk up Session Road— Baguio’s best known, and probably most iconic, thoroughfare—often brings me to some art nooks that, most of the time, have some food involved in it too. At the topmost floor of La Azotea Building, up a shady-looking flight of stairs, is perhaps the city’s most eclectic dining space: film-maker and artist Kidlat Tahimik’s Oh My Gulay!, a vegetarian restaurant. From here, the bustle of urban activity becomes a distant view from a window (and at night, a jumble of twinkling lights). Five minutes from here, along Assumption Road, Tahimik opened another like space—the Ili Likha Artist Village, which was built around trees, its multiple levels festooned with old bikes, mixed media, used wine bottles, stained glass, and mosaic tiles. Inside are several small restaurants serving pastas and sandwiches, beef stew, hot chocolate, and rice meals.

And then, of course, there is BenCab. The brainchild of Filipino National Artist for Visual Arts Benedicto Cabrera, the BenCab Museum in Asin, Tuba, Benguet—20 minutes from Baguio City proper—holds collections of his own works as well as indigenous artifacts from the Cordillera region, such as the bul’ol. The multi-level museum, which also holds regular exhibitions from local artists, overlooks a well-kept pond and vegetable garden, from which the in-house cafe, Cafe Sabel, gets its ingredients. Dining at the cafe means feasting on healthy, organic fare from a lean but well thought-out menu, which includes recipes from BenCab himself. These include BenCab’s Chicken Paprika and the cafe’s signature BenCab’s Brew, using coffee beans harvested from its own farm.

Finding Baguio’s not-so-hidden gems

Besides dining, there are so many other ways by which to soak up Baguio’s culture and character. The first step—quite literally—is to walk, since this is a rather pleasant way to get around the city, whose roads are still relatively friendlier than their counterparts elsewhere.

After all, Baguio is still that kind of place where strangers play a game of chess at a park, underneath life-size statues of Igorot warriors. It’s also that kind of place that affords people-watching and picnics at Burnham Park on Tuesday afternoons (because residents give way to tourists on Saturdays and Sundays).

Baguio is also that kind of place where the market is as much a tourist attraction as it is a utility. It’s where the cheapest, choicest highland vegetables are found. It’s where one can get a quarter of a kilo of freshly ground coffee beans from Benguet, Sagada, or Kalinga for just a little over P100. Even the world’s priciest coffee, the coffee alamid, is found here. Fresh strawberries, in season from December to May, can get as cheap as P80 a kilo here.

At the Maharlika Building, at the bottom of Session Road, past the labyrinth of cell phone shops, are antiques for the avid collectors. Twenty minutes away, at Km. 6 along Asin Road in Tuba, some of the finest woodcrafts (the Cordilleras is home to highly skilled craftsmen) can be found and taken home. On the other side of the city, at a convent, you can find and take home Baguio’s quintessential ube jam and heavenly alfajor. Getting the Baguio Country Club’s famous raisin bread doesn’t even entail club membership; the P190-loaf is available at Villa Cordillera along Outlook Drive or at the Villa Cordillera kiosk at SM Baguio.

When it comes to everything strawberry, establishments seemed to have pulled out all stops to create something out of La Trinidad’s most famous fruit: strawberry shortcake from Vizco’s, strawberry sinigang at Mines View Park Hotel, strawberry scrub at North Haven spa, strawberry sorbetes at the La Trinidad strawberry farm, strawberry hot chocolate from Choco-late de Batirol, strawberryflavored craft beer from Baguio Craft Brewery, and of course, strawberry jam from Good Shepherd and strawberry taho from your friendly taho vendor.

And to get to these spots, you just have to walk or hail one of the city’s famously kind cabbies, who will insist on giving you your change (even if it’s as low as 50 centavos).

Fireworks, sunsets, and the little things

Come February, the city lights up (and the roads seem to squeeze in a bit tighter than they already do) for the Panagbenga Flower Festival. It’s that time of the year when Burnham Park’s classic swans and blue-and-yellow boats get all dolled up as they glide around the lake, when Session Road is closed to vehicles and shops selling everything from foot-long hotdogs to local crafts occupy both sides, when the first weekend of March—the end of Panagbenga—means finding your best spot in the city to watch simultaneous fireworks (usually seven sets of them from different spots around the city) light up the chilly sky.

I’ve always thought that apart from sunsets, fireworks somehow look—and feel—more magical in Baguio’s chill. It’s just one of those little things that seem to make more sense—for some unknown reason—in this cold city I call home.

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