Episode 66: Memories of Baguio – Of Food, Writing, and Nostalgia Trips

It took me a long time before I could put my thoughts on print. I only meant to write about the three-day food writing workshop I attended in Baguio City weeks ago. However, as I reviewed my notes, looked at my pictures, and looked back at those three days, the task became more difficult, all because I began to remember more than what I was supposed to write about.

The northeast monsoon that greeted me as I stepped off the bus that Friday morning was cold, welcoming, and unforgiving. The moment I inhaled the city’s fresh air, my lungs gave way, sending me into a fit of coughing. Is it because I have been too acclimated with Metro Manila’s air?

I waited for the sunrise over a six-inch plate of Pizza Hanna and a cup of brewed coffee, which quickly cooled down. Nothing much has changed in Pizza Volante, I thought, and the scene that greeted me by the window was the same that I would behold years ago: a cold, quiet, and nearly empty Session Road.

As the sun rose, I took off to the Baguio Cathedral, where, as with my previous trips, I offered my prayers and my worries. A set of lyrics comes to mind:

God don’t make me lose my mind
Up in there, up in there
God don’t make me go all out
Up in there, up in there
God don’t make me act the fool
Up in there, up in there
God don’t make me lose my cool
Up in there, up in there

It was my prayer back in college to keep my sanity intact, and I have recited it again.

UP Baguio was nearly empty when I visited the campus; classes were about to end that week. That didn’t stop me from walking around, taking pictures as I go. So much has changed – it barely looked like the campus I grew up in.

I took the time to visit the office of a lawyer-friend who’s about to get married this year. I promised her that I’d send her a book that she liked; I wanted to give it to her over a year ago, but she wouldn’t meet up with me. She couldn’t either now.

I left the book to her staff, hoping she’d pick it up later. I forgot what book it was; it has never left the wrapper it was enclosed in since then.

Café Luisa’s brewed coffee tasted the same as it did years ago, when I worked in the company of the city’s journalists and poets. The liquid left that familiar bittersweet aftertaste in my mouth, as bittersweet as the memories I have of my life there.

It was almost noon time when I reached Iggy’s Inn, the place where I would stay for the next few days, and the venue of our workshop. After unpacking my bags and resting a bit, I joined the rest of the participants for the first part of our workshop.

Our first exercise was about our most memorable meal. Thinking of which of my meals I should write about is supposedly easy, except all I could think of was the ones I had in Baguio. Not the ones in Manila, not the ones in my travels, but the ones in Baguio.

Over snacks of vegetable lumpia and pancit, I threw a quick SOS in cyberspace: From which of my memories shall I draw out my best meal? Family? Love? Pain? Adventure?

I ended up writing about my first girlfriend, about how I prepared a picnic meal of egg sandwiches and mashed potatoes on our first date at Luneta Hill, and the special chicken tinola I made for her on the day I was about to introduce her to my family. It came out fine, but deep inside I was emotionally exhausted. I had hoped never to evoke those memories again.

I spent the rest of the night watching shows fro Discovery TLC and drinking beer in my room, all the while trying to focus my thoughts. With only Anthony Bourdain’s boastings and the alcohol in my system, I found momentary peace and rest.

I greeted Saturday morning with a slight hangover and a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and coffee. It was cooking day; we were supposed to go to the Baguio Market to shop for food, after which we would cook our own lunch and dinner.

While everyone was learning how to pick fresh ingredients, my mind was wandering. The familiar scents of the market came back to me – the chopped slabs of beef and pork, the salty scent of the fishes, and the vegetables cooled by Cordilleran soil. They were the same as I smelled them years ago.

By the time we reached the hangar section, I was in another world – that of my past. I remember the hangar section by another name: the Black Market. The place barely changed after all these years. I can still remember the dark alleys, the crowd, and the scent of soil and vegetables in the air. It felt familiar, homely, and sad.

 Our next cooking lesson was dumpling making. They say cooking is like meditation, where you pour in your heart and soul in preparing your meal.

I for one believed it was like learning a martial art, still a form of meditation, but the type that would make you yell “WA-CHAA!” at every ingredient you get your hands on.

Seriously, making dumpling wrappers and stuffing them with meat is hard work!

Lunch came in the form of Afritada Ilocana with kamote fries, dumplings, salad, shallot pancakes, roasted bangus, and chilled strawberries, blueberries, and cream for dessert .It was the collective effort of the group that led us to have such a sumptuous meal.

For dinner, we prepared chicken in orange sauce and a version of coquille St. Pierre, a dish made famous by prolific food writer Julia Child.

We spent the afternoon coating chickens in flour and spices, slicing oranges, mixing their juices in gin and orange concentrate, chopping fish, grating cheese, and deveining shrimps, among others. Too bad we didn’t have scallop shells to serve the coquilles on.

I even got the chance to help make Bechamel sauce for the coquille. My wrist hurt after mixing the sauce, but it was a delicious (pardon the pun) kind of pain.

While everyone was resting, I ran off to the city proper to enjoy the Saturday night life. After a few bottles of beer at 18BC along Legarda Road, I trudged to Session Road and found two of my old comrades at Rumours, our old watering hole.

Rumours had grown more spacious from the last time I passed by it. They now sell shawarma at night, and if I remembered correctly, they sold ice cream in the morning. The usual patrons were there – tourists, businessmen, and some of Baguio’s well-known faces. For me though, it was a place where Baguio’s mediamen spent time drinking , conversing, and thinking. For a change, it was nice to be back in your former territory with familiar faces to welcome you.

I returned to the inn thoroughly buzzed, having drunk seven bottles of beer in total throughout the night. It was the first time I spent the night recklessly. Feels like old times.

Our last morning at the workshop started with an exercise on the kitchens of our childhood. It felt good remembering the kitchens I’ve been to, though they weigh heavily on me.

Unlike the rest of the participants who had elaborate kitchens, or experiences working in them, I only have one prevalent memory – the person who’s a frequent occupant of our kitchen, my mother. I had difficulty writing about those memories, even in this post; there were so many of them that I thought I would break.

In any case, if there’s one thing I learned fully well, it’s the ability to spontaneously speak out what’s on my mind; my mom’s memories, along with the hundreds of ideas born in my head throughout the exercises, were among them.

We ended our workshop by cooking paella. This is the first time I participated in the preparation and cooking of paella. I saw how the rice was cooked in the griddle, how the spices were added, and how the chorizo, shrimps, garlic, and other ingredients were left to steam. I watched as the paella was left to cook on its own for an hour, and how it changed into a golden, fragrant mash of rice, meat, and spices.

The paella haunts me to this day. The meat was tender, and the rice was fluffy and flavorful. The distinct flavors swam in the palate in every bite, changing into one unified taste. Is this the essence of “umami”? Or is it the fact that we made home-cooked paella with such speed and grace that made it special? It didn’t matter then; we were enjoying a full, filling and satisfying dish, and that’s all that mattered.

We departed from the inn, with the promise to meet again in perhaps another workshop in the future. We will surely have our chance again someday, to sit down and talk about food, share our experiences and insight, and perhaps, learn from each other’s memories.

My writing career was born in Baguio, but food writing was not part of the skill set I gained there. I trained myself since childhood to be a journalist, and food writing wasn’t the craze back then, after all.

It would take a long while before I explored the idea of writing about food. My idea of food writing was trying out different dishes, visiting restaurants, learning other cuisines, and exploring flavors. That’s how other writers did, or so I observed.

Things took a different turn when I returned to Baguio a few years later. All I wanted was to revisit the places I’ve dined in from college to my professional years. I only had to pick and review a few, and the ones that meant the most to me, at that. But that’s not what happened.

The moment I started writing, the memories started to kick in. I slowly remembered my first canteen meal, my first hole-in-the-wall restaurant, my first liquor buzz, my first Cordilleran dish, even my first caffeine overdose. But it wasn’t just the memories of the food that came crashing through.  I remembered everything – my first day-out with friends, my first market trip, my first drunken walk around the city, my first lonely coffee shop moment, my first date, my first love…

By the time I finished writing, it became clear to me that it wasn’t Baguio’s cuisine that I wasn’t supposed to write about, but the memories associated with them. That means every single one of those memories, from the happy to the sad, from the ecstatic to the painful.

Joining this food workshop awakened something in me. I hoped to learn how to be a creative, insightful food writer, far from what I am now, who reviews restaurants and talks about the nitty-gritty details of cuisine. However, it seems everything I need to become the writer I hope to be is already right here. I just had to use them.

I prepared to leave Baguio, physically refreshed but burdened with the memories of this city. I have much to remember, much to relive, and much to write about the place I once called the “Arcadia of my stomach.” How much of those I could write down, I don’t know for sure. But I will do it… somehow.

As I waited for my bus, I stopped by a coffee shop and did one more thing.

My main reason to visit Baguio, apart from attending the workshop, was to finish my light novel.  It took me a few hours, but I was able to polish it and start posting on Wattpad. Maybe I could say my novel-writing career officially started in Baguio.

The novel I made is about a writer who revisited his alma mater as it held its local version of the Japanese Tanabata Festival. However, he ends up reuniting with a girl from his past, whom he loves and looks up to fondly as his “North Star.”

The setting is UP Baguio…

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Episode 33: Starting the year right at Casa Vallejo Hill Station!

I’m starting the year right with a quick dinner with my brother MC at Hill Station, the restaurant of Casa Vallejo in Baguio City. After spending the holidays with my family in the highlands, I figured it would be nice to check out at some place we haven’t been in the city. This place felt just the right spot.

Casa Vallejo was a wooden inn opened in 1909, while Baguio is being established as a hill station for the Americans. The place was used as a detention center and refugee camp. It withstood the Americans’ carpet bombing of the city at the end of World War II. In 1945, it functioned as an annex of the Baguio City High School, and once again as an inn and convention hall.

Casa Vallejo closed down in 1999. After several years of subsequent restoration, it was brought back to life; and now Casa Vallejo is recognized as one of the ten oldest institutions in Baguio. One of the results of the restoration of Casa Vallejo is Hill Station, the restaurant owned by restaurateur Mitos Benitez–Yniguez.

Hill Station is Casa Vallejo’s old ballroom/meeting area, now decorated with elegant and nostalgia-evoking designs. The restaurant is connected by two staircases to the inn’s lobby above, and also leads to the café bar below. The open space is surrounded by French windows and the wooden beams and floors, remnants of Casa Vallejo’s antique structure. Old photographs also adorn the walls. One can enjoy the view of the trees and the city lights at night. The ambiance is totally Baguio.

Hill Station was voted as one of Asia’s finest restaurants, and is included in the Miele Guide 2011/2012 Edition. The menu is a mix of Asian, American, and European dishes, mostly slow food, stews, steaks, pastas, and other home-cooked specialties. Hill Station’s website describes its cuisine thus:

 

“Mitos offers you robust dishes that blend the flavors of Asia’s hill stations with the tastes of Old World Europe and New World America. Here in her creations, these three worlds fuse harmoniously as never before, and a spoonful of history was never as good!”

Our dinner started with some mushroom soup, just enough to warm the first night of the year.

We then had Linguine with Sundried Tomatoes and Pecorino, a sweet-sour, rich mix of Roma tomatoes, white wine, and artisanal hard goat cheese.

MC ordered Shepherd’s Pie, a bowl of sliced lamb and beef baked with mushrooms, gravy, mashed potatoes and cheese. The bowl looked small but every spoonful of it was very flavorful.

 

My dinner was Ribeye Picado, beef ribeye cubes cooked medium well, and served with vegetables and mashed potatoes. The beef was soft and succulent, and the vegetables were cooked just right. The whole dish was filling, to say the least.

 

For dessert we were supposed to have a Death By Chocolate Cake, which was one of their best-sellers, but since the bar ran out of the stuff, we ended up with a sweet, creamy cup of their crème brulee.

 

The whole meal was quite expensive, which is not surprising given the setting and cuisine served here. The service was quite fast, and the staff was very accommodating. In any case, our stay at Hill Station was quick, but all in all we enjoyed a really sumptuous dinner.

Hill Station serves Filipino and American breakfast meals from 7:00 – 10:30am. Desserts are always freshly made but subject to availability. Cocktail drinks and other liquor are also available to cap your lunch or dinner, preferably enjoyed at the adjacent bar.

Guests can buy Hill Station’s red and white wines, homemade sauces and condiments that they can buy for their homes.Various handicrafts are also available.

Back in college I remember walking past Casa Vallejo, right when it was in a state of disrepair. How would I have known that this old, neglected building would hold such a rich history. Its nice to see how Casa Vallejo was revived. This is one place in Baguio where you can enjoy a warm meal, a nice view, and a relaxing ambiance that can engulf you in a wave of nostalgia.

———



Hill Station
Casa Vallejo
Upper Session Road,  Baguio City 

Tel. No. 424-2734
423-9100
423-9558 

Episode 31: Feeding the body and soul at Oh My Gulay!


If there was one restaurant in Baguio that I regret not being able to appreciate early, it’s Oh My Gulay! (OMG!). Sure, I pass by it from time to time to have coffee, but I’ve never dined there. That was because my idea of a pastime other than having coffee was a heavy meal over beer and cigarettes. Hey, I was young.

Oh My Gulay! (OMG!) is a vegetarian restaurant at the fifth floor of the La Azotea Building along Upper Session Road. The place is owned by Baguio artist Kidlat Tahimik, and has been a favorite spot for artists, writers, and coffee lovers looking for a quiet place to hang out.

OMG! commands a great view of the city from the back of La Azotea. The restaurant also shares the floor with an exhibit area and arts center. Upon entering the area, one can marvel at the garden-like ambience, the tropical greenery, the wooden bridges and the pond, the wooden hut, the stage with its sculptures, and the curiosities that occupy every nook and cranny. Come to think of it, Baguio’s art scene is active, which is why such places flourish here.
In our recent visit to Baguio, MC and I decided to eat something light for brunch. The most sensible choice at the moment was Oh My Gulay! (OMG!). We were going to eat light, after all… or so we thought.
First on the table was the Chow-Chow Noodles, egg noodles served with vegetables sautéed with garlic and flavored with spicy soy sauce and hoisin.
Along with it was a plate of Anak ng Putanesca, pasta topped with sautéed garlic, capers and olives, and enriched with pomodoro cheese and spices.
On the side was Talong Parmigiana, deep-fried eggplant set on a crisp baguette and topped with basil oil and special sauce.
Not far behind was the OMG Sandwich, the vegetarian version of the club sandwich with tomates, crisp cucumber, and egg, and served with a green salad.
We finally had crepes for dessert.  There were two varieties that we tried – the Super Sosy (peaches and cream) and Mansanas (caramelized apples), both light with a blend of sweet and fruity. It was only then that we began to feel stuffed.
OMG! does justice to Baguio’s reputation as a source of fresh vegetables and fruits. One can be sure the food is hot, freshly-cooked, and made from the freshest ingredients. The best part is that it offers vegetarian cuisine – exactly what health-conscious people need.
It’s nice that the whole area houses paintings and other artworks by other local artists. One can walk around and appreciate the artworks, or sit quietly and let the words flow from your head to your notepad or laptop.
Now here’s a thought: Going vegetarian is a difficult feat. Seriously, eating vegetables is great. It cleanses the body, aids in weight loss, keeps us healthy, etc. It’s the stuff we hear from our parents when we’re coaxed into eating vegetables.
The problem is that we’re too used to eating meat. Most of us consume a lot of pork, beef, and/or chicken all our lives, and nothing else. Thus, we fail to realize the importance of eating a balanced meal, and we pay for that when we grow older. I did.
Vegetarian cuisine isn’t as difficult to digest as we thought. Of course we do have vege-meat, tofu, and all those alternatives to meat, but apparently, nothing beats eating vegetables. It’s good that there are restaurants that serve vegetarian and other healthy cuisines.
It also helps to know that being healthy is a state of mind. Where you dine and what your senses ingest can influence what you eat. A person surrounded with beautiful things and sounds is assured to have a relaxed, stress-free mind fed with inspiration instead of junk.
And that’s what OMG! is all about – nourishing the body with good, healthy food, and feeding the mind and soul. Bonus points for enjoying all these in Baguio, a city that’s nostalgic and romantic and inspiring… Okay, I‘m trailing off.

Episode 20: Memories of Baguio – From The Beginning Until Now (Epilogue)

How long has it been since I last visited Baguio? I was there with my family just last February, watching the street dancing and float parades of the Panagbenga Flower Festival. I went there a few times last New Year, and a few times more before that. Then what?

I learned much about Baguio as a melting pot of cultures in the pots of the sidewalk food stalls, in the cups of brewed coffee, in the bottles of rice wine and peanut brittle, in the baskets of vegetables and strawberries. Not to mention that the city is not only a tourist destination, but also a foodie’s paradise. The native cuisine, mixed with its traditions, and blended with American and lowland influences shaped the way Baguio folk ate, cooked, drank, and appreciated food.

I understood that dining is not only the sharing of food and drinks, but also of lives, knowledge, and feelings. It’s one field of experience reaching out to and blending with another through a common medium. Now there were good things to experience, and there were bad things too. These were all part of the learning process that had to be embraced. Most of what I’ve learned and gained in my travels, I gained with the help of the people that made a mark in my life.

My original plan was to write only about my food-related memories in Baguio. I wanted to revisit all of the places I dined in, remember my first plate of red rice, my first spoonful of viand, my first cup of coffee and my first bottle of beer. I wanted to remember the patrons, the specialties, the ones that dined with me there.

Admittedly, I kept putting off going around, and I had many excuses. I had to spend more time with my siblings, whom I don’t see quite often. Eating out is expensive, even with my cash on hand. I don’t feel hungry. I’m tried or feeling sick. And so on.

When I did get to make time for my quest, everything felt different. To tell you frankly, no matter how hard I draw from my memories, I have to acknowledge that a lot of things changed, and this had an effect on my recall.

In the numerous times I visited the places in my memories, I realized something was missing.

Dining at Jack’s Rice felt different now from when I was still a student, or a reporter. 50’s Diner didn’t evoke so many memories from college life. Going out with Jad was one thing, but hanging out at Ionic Café and Café by the Ruins felt like a distant memory. The old watering holes are gone or have changed. SM Baguio now stands on Luneta Hill. The places I hung out were now closed or replaced with new ones.

Pizza Volante was another matter altogether. It was the only place that barely changed through the years (except that the free coffee were gone), and that brought back vivid memories of my past. My memories of college life, my career, even my last girlfriend whom I hoped to marry, were still alive in that pizzeria.

So why did I go back to Baguio? I wondered if going around Baguio was worth it. Was I looking for something? Was it the experience, the nostalgia brought by these places? Was it the food that I missed? Was it the liquor, the drunken nights, the “lonely table” moments in the city’s booze joints? Was it the feeling that I had unfinished business somewhere? Was there a specific dish, or a flavor, that I wanted to taste again? Or was I looking for someone?

Recently, I came across the book “A Cook’s Tour,” by Anthony Bourdain. In one of the chapters, he went on a food trip with his brother to seek the perfect meal in their hometown in France, only to realize it wasn’t that trip that would satisfy them. In his book, he wrote:

“I hadn’t, I realized, returned to France, to this beach, my old town, for the oysters. It wasn’t the fish soup, or the saucisson, or the pain raisin. It wasn’t to see a house in which strangers now lived, or to climb a dune, or to find a perfect meal. I’d come to find my father. And he wasn’t there.”

I sympathize with Tony, but unlike him, I wasn’t looking for something or someone.

I realized I was looking for myself. Specifically, the me that I was before.

Those places reminded me of more than memories. They reminded me of what I was when I first came to these places – my old feelings, my thoughts, my reactions on the flavors and sights and sounds around me.

Those places held memories of the old me. The me who loved the outdoors. The me who appreciated good company. The me who was adventurous and outgoing. The me who knew how to relate with people. The me who trusted others. The me who openly cared for others. Most importantly, the me who knew how to love.

What happened to me all these years? How much has my psyche been damaged? Was it all that heartbreak, disappointments, betrayals, and heart attacks? Am I beyond saving?

In any case, I won’t say I’ve become jaded with my life. I can’t say so myself, yet. In the meantime I’ll let others, unworthy as they are, to speculate and judge who I am, what I was, and what I could be, after which they could all jump off Manila Bay with millstones hanging on their necks.

At the same time, with this early realization in mind, I’ll have to do something with myself. Where I should start, I’m not quite sure. For now, I’ll enjoy who I am now and see what else I can learn about myself.

Maybe – just maybe – when I go back to Baguio and look around, I might find the pieces of my old self. Maybe I’d learn something and find a new reason to live on. And then maybe that cup of Benguet Blend would be much tastier this time around.

Episode 20: Memories of Baguio (Part 6) – Stitches and Burns

“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body or on your heart – are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.” — Anthony Bourdain

For most Baguio residents, Luneta Hill was where the Pines Hotel once stood. For some, it was a spooky place, filled with stories of ghosts and muggers. For others, it was a place to hang out. But for me, it meant long walks, wind-burned lips, and egg sandwiches.

My first date was a picnic with a new friend at Luneta Hill. My date was younger by less than a year and just entered college. We met in a protest rally, became friends and soon agreed to meet often.

That day, I brought egg sandwiches good enough to feed a whole squad. It was the first time I ever made sandwiches. I wanted to impress her, but in hindsight, I only made egg sandwiches because I didn’t have enough money for ham.

The day was overcast and cold, but picnicking under the trees felt like a good idea. We spent the afternoon talking about our lives, our plans in college, our thoughts about things like religion and politics. It was light banter back then. We had a lot to talk about. We wanted to know so much about each other.

My friend and I agree on a lot of thoughts and ideas. She was kind, understanding, and open-minded. She had a deep relationship with God, and valued her family. I felt comfortable being with her, even found it easy to be myself.

Several weeks later, under the trees of Luneta Hill, she agreed to be my girlfriend.

One afternoon, though, she called me over to her place… and broke up with me. The end.

Now that I think about it, I no longer remember what I did for her that made her fall in love with me in the first place. I was just being my kind, cheerful, poetic self. All I could remember was that I blamed myself over and over again for the break-up.

And then, I started drinking.

———————

Many of Baguio’s street-side bars are noisy, dark places where people play loud music, ate peanuts and cheap fries, drank Red Horse Beer, and got beaten up for giving (perceived) dirty looks. Karaoke machines are aplenty too, and patrons sang their hearts out (those who don’t get entertained beat up the singers, sometimes).

There were shadier watering holes in the city, most of which are frequented by students. One spot I remember was in New Lucban, just several meters from the boarding houses and a several more from a school. The beer was cheap, and they closed late in the night. Gangs, couples, teens on group dates, singles… They’re all there.

Then there are certain bars that serve harder liquor, play softer music, and served more sophisticated people like rich folks, expats, celebrities, and couples (shudder). They were high-end spots for a student like me. Still, I found bars like those to my liking.

Some bars were dangerous places to get drunk. People get easily provoked, and woe to you if you provoke a drunken guy who has his crew in tow. On the other hand, these places were lively, and everybody minded their own business as long as you did the same. (Flirting is another matter.) Such an environment is perfect for someone who wanted to nurse his wounds by himself.

(Note: Nowadays, bars in Baguio no longer serve alcohol by 12 midnight. The only places that do are the establishments in Nevada Square, and they’re open until 3am.)

———————

456 Restaurant became one of the few places that comforted me when I’ve had enough of beer, when I was ready to throw up but was afraid to expel my gastric juices. A platter of “giniling” (ground pork) and rice was enough to heal my alcohol-filled belly. Not to mention that food there was affordable.

If I wasn’t too buzzed, I’d go to Burnham Park and go to Rica’s, which served what I could call the best arrozcaldo in the city. The lugaw’s hot, the chicken fresh and gingery, the servings heavy.

But if I was too drunk, I’d find myself eating in smaller food stalls. I would dine on budget meals in the company of taxi drivers and other night owls, trying to stay awake until my stomach is filled and I can walk again.

I spent nights drinking and enjoying myself amidst strangers. Nobody bothered me even in my drunkenness. The revelry, the music, and my booze were enough to make me forget or at least numb the pain. Back then, it was the only way I found peace.

I was drunk but sated. I was content. And soon enough, I forgot. Or so I thought.

———————

I met my last girlfriend, a businesswoman, while she was selling headgear at Session Road. She was older by about a year. She helped out in the family business, selling ready to wear clothes, fabrics, and other clothing materials.

On our first nights on the road we talked about business, news around the city, even a bit about ourselves. She was nice, childish to a fault, shrewd, and open-minded on things that are beyond her… such as my job. Somehow we get along although we weren’t compatible on a lot of things.

Then she suggested we hang out at Pizza Volante.

Soon enough, we spent a lot of time at Pizza Volante dining on personal sized pizzas, waffles, and liters of brewed coffee with free refills. We ate sparingly, talked a lot about so many things, and drank coffee non-stop. We had all the opportunities to know each other better.

Sometimes, we would end up in some other coffee shop, or drinking booze in the dark corners of Burnham Park, but we frequently went back to Pizza Volante.

Let me cut this story about her at this point. We became a couple for about six years, we moved to Manila, she left for another country… and got married.

To tell you frankly, my last girlfriend is part of most of my memories of certain places in Baguio. We dated in so many places around the city, and listing them all would mean I might as well write a book.

Pizza Volante reminded me of good times, days when I thought I have healed my heart and learned to love again. I was really convinced she was the one. I did learn to love, only to lose it again.

———————

My sob stories in Baguio didn’t always involve matters on love. When I lost my job at my first newspaper, I shied away from my usual hang-out spots and drank like hell. When I finished my contract in one of my other jobs, I went to Yellow Cab and wolfed down a whole pizza by myself. When I felt emotional, I hung out in the strangest places like Maharlika and Legarda Road – and lived to tell the tale. And so on and so forth.

Luneta Hill is now home to SM City Baguio. That bar at New Lucban is now closed down, probably for violating the midnight liquor ban, or after the cops realized they’re serving too many students. The ones in Maharlika are still there, but most of Legarda Road’s watering holes are gone, replaced by Korean schools. Pizza Volante? They ditched their free coffee refills.

Certain places in Baguio became memorable ones in my life, not because I made good memories there, but also because they marked important times in my life. Those times were difficult to forget. Those times had bittersweet memories. Those times hurt.

In my times of despair, I lived a debaucher’s life fueled by alcohol and unhealthy food. It was a bad way to cope with loss or failure, but escaping into the chaos of the world made me aware that I had bad vibes to release and replace with good ones. After throwing up, after nursing that hangover, after enduring that sick feeling is a new day.

Let it suffice to say that the bad things in my life were difficult to move on from, or even forget. I will have to live through the pain, the guilt, and the empty feelings. On the other hand, is it even right to wallow in sad memories? They are as important as the good ones, after all. The actual answer, though, is a big NO.

Sad moments and memories in our lives remind us of our mortality. They bring wounds in our bodies and hearts that are meant to be healed, mistakes that must be avoided, and lessons learned hard.

I for one am hope I meant something for those whom I had made memories with, food-related or not. I assure you, I have not forgotten them, but I have to move on from the memories of them that tie me down.

I better stop rambling now.

Episode 20: Memories of Baguio (Part 5) – When a cub reporter goes hungry

Some of my better memories of Baguio came from my stint as a newspaper reporter. Right after college, I started work with a local newspaper, the first step towards the realization of my dream to become a journalist, or something close to being one.

Adjusting to the job was difficult (especially for me who doesn’t know how to speak in Kankanaey or Ibaloi), and finding our way around and honing the craft proved to be a tedious task.  Despite the chaos that characterizes the life of a cub reporter, there are things that keep me alive after coverages and interviews – such as coffee, a heavy meal, and lots of beer…and something exotic along the way.

There’s this part of the city called “Slaughterhouse Compound” along Magsaysay Avenue. Never mind the name, or the hygiene-related questions you may have. Eateries here serve many kinds of meat dishes, such as pinapaitan, kilawen, dinuguan, and bulalo. Also, it’s just a few minute’s walk from my office (before it moved to La Trinidad).

One eatery serves what it called “Flea Market Rice,” a plateful of fried chicken, lechon , sunny-side up egg, chopsuey, and a big cup of rice.

I consider “Flea Market Rice” as comfort food, especially when I get out from work or during weekends. Just like Jack’s Rice, this is complete, rich, and always served hot. Bonus points for the free soup that goes with it, piping hot meat broth. The sad part is that it’s sometimes closed.

Speaking of meat, I did succumb to the temptation of seeking out pinikpikan and dog meat in Baguio. Pinikpikan is a chicken stew prepared by beating a live chicken with a stick. Barbaric as it sounds, as explained here, it’s actually an important part of Cordilleran cuisine (and by extension, culture).

The way I see it, pinikpikan is an alcoholic’s best friend. It’s nice to sup on a bloody, tasty piece of chicken along with your liquor, and its gingery broth to wash down the drunkenness. Take note that the chicken’s coagulated blood (the result of beating the chicken) is the reason pinikpikan is tasty.

Dog meat? I found certain eateries at the market that serve those. The dish itself… well, the skin’s tough, it’s fatty, there’s too many bones and not much meat. It mostly tastes like adobo, too. Your mileage may vary (By the way, selling dog meat is banned under the Animal Welfare Act. Eating it is not banned, though, because dogs can be butchered for indigenous practices.)

Luisa’s Café is a favorite watering hole of the Baguio media. This is where most journalists meet for snacks, coffee, or alcohol. Younger reporters would come here and solicit advice from their elders, or finish their reports. The old ones would just be there, drinking and conversing about anything under the sun.

The place serves Chinese dishes (the most famous of which is their siopao), Filipino rice meals and other dishes. And then there’s Sam Lok – native or Chinese style stir-fried meat. I regret never grabbing the chance to taste that.

Luisa’s is known for its strong, flavorful coffee. Also I mentioned some time ago how important coffee is for most Baguio folk, especially that it help people bond with each other. This is what makes Luisa’s a special place for local journalists and those in the know to meet.

Friday nights are spent at the newsroom. Since our newspaper comes out weekly, most of Friday is spent laying out the pages, editing reports and photos, and writing whatever can make it to the deadline. While everyone is busy and neck-deep in paperwork, we do get to unwind a bit over dinner.

It’s during mealtime that the staff get to talk about things inside and outside of work, like trivia about themselves, experiences in the field, new things we’ve noticed, and even stuff that makes us wax poetic or philosophical.

Dinner usually consists of buttered chicken, chopsuey, pancit, pork sinigang, or some other viand plus lots of rice, courtesy of Good Taste Restaurant. Good Taste is a 24-hour establishment frequented by locals and tourists alike. The place serves a fusion of Filipino and Chinese home cooked dishes. The food here is also surprisingly cheap but served hot.

When all work is done for the night (except Fridays), Rumours is the place to unwind. I once heard that Rumours was named such because this is where patrons talk about “rumours” on people and events around Baguio. Anyway, this bar, probably one of the most popular in the city, is a small, mellow place frequented by tourists, expats, and (according to some residents) gays and writers.

Rumours is a great place to spend the night quietly with your thoughts, or loudly with good companions. They play eighties music, their liquor and food are inexpensive, and the staff are nice and accommodating. Also,
they now serve ice cream, most especially rose ice cream (made with rose petals) and chili ice cream (yeah).

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At this point, let me share to you something very quickly: I’ve been having a hard time writing for this series. Writing about my food-related memories in Baguio has been a strenuous task for me. That’s because it seems that things from my past are starting to grow dim. No, I’m not being forgetful, though I might as well say I am. Why?

It’s nice to remember things about your past, and realize how much you’ve learned about yourself and others along the way. But writing about your memories not only means remembering good things from the past. It also involves having to revisit those that lead to sad and painful ones, the ones you try to forget to move on…

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Up next… An old hang-out, and certain memories that go with it.

Episode 20: Memories of Baguio (Part 4) – Cordilleran coffee, poetry fuel unleaded

I recently came across my old files in my laptop. One folder contained poems, random verses and paragraphs, and other forms of ranting that I wrote way back in college.

Two of the poems had words that were arranged to make the shape of coffee cups. One poem resulted in a perfect-looking cup, the other looked like a misshapen mug without a handle.

Admittedly I don’t remember when I wrote that mug poem, but I do know this was the same piece I read in that poetry reading event at Cafe By the Ruins.

My other poems were about the little things I experienced in Baguio, such as my first cigarette, hanging out in clubs, arcade games, even the more profound things that spice up poems like love, angst, confusion, and death.
I no longer write poetry (at least I’m no longer inspired to), but when I was living in Baguio, I wrote a lot. Come to think of it, writing was one of my pastimes in Baguio.
Much of my free time in college was spent hanging out in coffee shops, a pen on one hand and a steaming cup of coffee on the other. Baguio’s coffee shops proved to be the best venues to get one’s literary creative juices working, or should I say, wax poetic.

One of the coffee shops I frequent is Ionic Café, located above the Solibao Restaurant at Session Road. Ionic Cafe is a small, decent cafe, a good enough place to unwind. You can gaze at Session Road from where you’re sitting as you sip hot coffee or drink a beer in peace.
It gets better in the evening, when the place gets smoky and dimly lit, the music and the conversations become hushed… and the words and feelings start flowing.
Coffee shops like Ionic Cafe fuel my film noir fantasies: walking up the dimly lit stairs, sitting at a corner of the cafe with a lit cigarette as jazz music plays in the background, looking at the stars and the city lights from the window…
…Then gangsters enter the café and open fire, and you retaliate with pistols akimbo. And the doves, John Woo… Never forget the doves. Uh, wait…
Cafe San Luis was another place I patronized. I remember that the café (or all three branches of it – Bonifacio Street, Session Road, and Legarda Road) were very popular in the 1990s as one of the many hang-outs of artists, musicians, and coffee lovers.

Before I met my college friends, I would visit the Session Road branch and scribble a few lines while listening to music and sipping coffee or beer. When it moved to Legarda Road (the new place was quieter and even had a mini-library), I still made it a point to hang out there.

I also visited other coffee shops, though most of them are already closed. One such shop, located along Assumption Road, served brewed coffee and pastries, and played jazz and songs by Sting. Here my friends and I hang out and wax poetic about mundane stuff, literature, politics, fantasy, and the changing tides of life. It’s an internet café now.
There was another shop at the La Azotea Building that we always visit. We meet up there in the morning, hang out and have coffee until it’s time for school, and then come back in the afternoon. Sadly, it was closed down to give way to an internet café.

Then there was Luisa’s Café, another place I visit to have brewed coffee, a meal or two, and most of the time, a drink or more with the local journalists. Luisa’s Café is a favorite hang-out place of the Baguio media. But I think I’ll reserve my notes on this place for another article.

Coffee is an important product in the Cordillera Region. The region itself is a potential gold mine. Mountain Province, Benguet, Ifugao, Abra and Kalinga are known as the top producers of Arabica, Robusta, Excelsea, and even the expensive Kape Motit.

Baguio people definitely love their coffee. Every morning they would boil their Benguet Blend beans, pour the coffee into pots or dispensers, share or sell them to the public, and then gulp the liquid by the cupfuls. By now you should realize how cold Baguio’s temperature can get, especially at night, right?

The best way to enjoy coffee was to drink it black, though milk and sugar are welcome additions to the brew. Every meal goes well with coffee.

Drinking coffee is also a social activity. People find time to have coffee at any time of the day, and coffee shops are sometimes filled with patrons just hanging out to enjoy their warm drinks. People from all walks of life tend to meet and exchange ideas, thoughts, and information over coffee.

My love for writing grew up as I learned to appreciate Baguio’s coffee culture. The city’s atmosphere, along with the flavor and warmth of Cordillera’s coffee, nourishes my imagination, whether romantic, angst-ridden, or philosophical.

Baguio brings a refreshing, relaxing mood that invites the feeling of melancholy and nostalgia. It’s being so close to nature, the blue sky, the cool breeze and the trees and mountains that inspires the poet at heart.

(EDIT: Just a few months ago, I learned that Ionic Cafe has closed down, and its former area is now a dining area for Solibao Restaurant. Liters of tears fell that day.)

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Coffee didn’t always involve poetry when I was in Baguio. After college, I spend my days reading news reports, writing my articles for the week, talking with people, or just relaxing after a long day at the provincial beat. All these I do with a cup of coffee ready at hand.

Yeah, after years of delving into poetry, I didn’t become a poet, but I became a reporter.

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Up next… The gastronomic adventures of a cub reporter in Baguio.

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Ionic Cafe

Session Road
Baguio City
Phone: (+6374) 4447480