MANILA, Philippines?Whenever we are in Baguio, we like to go through our childhood memories. We always ask ourselves how come we can no longer smell the pine trees the moment we hit Kennon Road. How come Session Road is much like Manila traffic? How come Mines View Park doesn?t have the view we remember?
But our childhood memories include the tin roofs dotting the mountainside. They increased through the years and, in 1990, were the most vulnerable during the huge earthquake. Yet these days, you see those tin roofs again as if tempting fate and the mountain.
After the National Food Showdown, the culinary competition participated in by teams from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, we hied off to Baguio for the annual culinary competition organized by the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Baguio and headed by Anthony de Leon, manager of the Country Club. We were kept busy for three days with about 27 competitions spread out. We had many of our meals at the Country Club?s Hamada with its Japanese cuisine and at the Verandah, where Filipino orders of pakbet and sinigang of either fish or pork have become favorites.
Not everyone, however, can go into this exclusive Country Club. But there are other places where one can eat in Baguio.
Childhood memories are of Star Café, the first stop whenever we hit Baguio. It was comida China cuisine. My father, a PMAer, used to scale the school walls just to be able to have a midnight snack of Star Café pancit taken with Royal Tru-Orange. It was my father who led us to old timers? meeting at Star Café every morning where we interviewed them on just how Baguio was when they were younger. It was a month before the big earthquake.
Star Café is no longer at its old place on Session Road but has moved to the opposite side. Last time I went, we had disappointing dishes except for the Chinese sausage served with century egg slices. That was of my son?s choice a long time ago and right there and then I knew I had a gourmet in the family.
This time we didn?t feel like going to Star Café. Instead, we were invited to another Chinese restaurant that?s so identified with Baguio dining?Rose Bowl. My companions couldn?t stop laughing when I told them the last time my siblings were there, they were told they couldn?t order any more because the dishwasher had ?a breakdown.? They imagined the only guy who washed the dishes going berserk but, as it turned out, the dishwasher was a machine.
We had assorted cold cuts but this one was special because it had pieces of lechon de leche. Then the soup came, watercress with pork slices. There was the Rose Bowl mixed vegetables as only Baguio can produce?bright colors and a crispness that spells freshness. There was mashed yam and in it were pieces of lechon kawali. A huge lapu-lapu came steamed with soy sauce. Dessert was almond, red and black gulaman.
Another day, in between judging duties we had lunch at Mario?s. Mitos Benitez, second generation of the family which founded the restaurant, said that when her parents saw this quaint place that was Baguio, they decided to open a business there. Mario?s is known for its Spanish dishes such as lengua con setas and callos. The best bet is paella, both Valenciana and Marinara. It takes 40 minutes for each paella to be cooked and the waiters will tell you that. Nothing like still hot paella to ward away the cold Baguio weather. For dessert we had canonigo, a tall piece of egg white sweetened by custard sauce, and mango jubilee done tableside. The flambé action was the precursor of the flambé competition that would happen that afternoon at the SM venue.
For coffee we went to Café by the Ruins where we had scones, butter and very good guava jam, which had bits of guava. One of my friends said he went there to taste pinikpikan, that chicken dish which people like to call ?killing me softly? because the chicken is slowly beaten to create blood clots and then cooked with the native salt pork called etag.
At the Country Club, the judges were invited to cocktails by the New Zealand embassy featuring their wines and to dinner by the Spanish Embassy cooked by chef Mikel Arriet of Punta Fuego.
We never got to go to any of the eateries that serve Ilocano cooking?papaitan especially. There?s one in between the Country Club and Camp John Hay called Rimando?s. I was directed to Tabligan?s Kambingan along Loakan road with tables and chairs set up inside a garage. But we were homesick already and made do with what we had packed, mainly raisin bread, cheese loaf and cinnamon roll from the Country Club.
One reader, Melanie, reacted to the column titled ?Do Filipino mothers still cook? by saying that she still does, sometimes. ?And when we eat out, my children?s mantra: Never order anything that mom cooks at home. How sweet to my ears.?