Food Trip: Baguio Part #1

Baguio's Panagbenga Festival, held yearly in February (NPPA Images)

Feeling the heat in the city? Time to head to the summer capital of the Philippines to enjoy the cool air, the fun attractions and of course, to take in the freshest and delicious food. Lori treks to Baguio to savor the best food finds

Stop#1:  Strawberry Farm in La Trinidad, Benguet

"At least now you'll know that you don't pick strawberries from trees," my sister tells her two sons, as we motor to La Trinidad, Benguet. We drive into the Strawberry Farm and survey the fields. "Oh! What happened? There were so many strawberries last time and there were even stalls that were selling honey," my sister laments. I'm not sure what I'm expecting but it looks like a regular field to me. We're approached by a woman selling little wooden baskets of berries. She's selling them for P250/kilo, just P50 lower than the going market rate. We already think that's high… so we're totally floored when we're informed that strawberry picking will cost us P500/kilo! We go for it anyway since we want our kids to experience this.

I imagine that a strawberry field in full bloom is a stunning sight. Each plant is a small, short shrub that one has to bend over in order to grasp the fruit. Some berries are big, most are small. There are few of the fruit today, but the ones that peek from their leafy covers are provocative — stains of red on glades of green.

Image iconFresh strawberries for the picking

The farmer whose field we are "harvesting," pleads with the kids to exercise caution. My rambunctious 5-year-old nephew is practically plucking every fruit he can find, whether red or green, while my daughter — girly girl that she is — is walking gingerly through the narrow footpaths, cradling each heart-shaped treasure before pulling and mindfully depositing it into her box.

In the end, the kids' strawberry stash amounts to a little under a half kilo so my sister and I augment that by buying a kilo of fruit from the vendor. In the car on the way home, the berries' scent intoxicates so we each nibble on a few berries. They're sweet and satisfying.

Image iconDid you know: the strawberry fruit blooms from a flower?

Where is it?
Strawberry Farm in La Trinidad, Benguet
Km. 7 near Benguet State University
Best time to go is from November to May.

Stop #2: Wood Nymph
Wood Nymph is not a new restaurant but it's apparently little-known and oh-so-good.

My favorite dish here is what I call black spaghetti, on the menu it's called janchajang or jajjangmyeon (P150); noodles stir-fried with black bean paste. Despite its rather startling appearance, its flavor is quite benign, a cross between light soy sauce and dark soy sauce — think, salty and smoky.

I also like the tokboki, traditional Korean rice cakes (cylinders, really) mixed in gochujang, Korean chili paste. The addition of potato (also called glass) noodles sends this dish over the top, enhancing the chewy-slippery-spicy succession of sensations.

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Of course no self-respecting Korean restaurant would be without some kind of Korean barbecue. I recommend the samgyupsal (P250), Korean-style bacon fried at table. I prefer mine soft and cooked just 'til opaque, but the majority prefer it fried to a crisp. Afterwards, embark on a choose-your-own-adventure by enclosing the bacon in a lettuce leaf, embellishing it with the various pastes and vegetables (kimchi, spring onions, and gochujang is nice), fold, and eat up. Cooking and eating at the table is a great experience.

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Wood Nymph does an outstanding haemul pajeon (P190), onion pancake with seafood. It's flat as a sheet, its surface an allusion to an abstract painting. The accompanying vinegar sauce slices through the pancake's eggy-ness, pointing up the onion's pungency. Also try the chapchae where the noodles shine (literally!) slipping and sliding on a white plate on a one-way wander into a waiting mouth.

Where is it?
Wood Nymph Korean Restaurant
36 Military Cut-Off Road,
Baguio City 2600
(74) 446 0272

Stop #3: Hill Station
Casa Vallejo is a white wooden inn on Upper Session Road. One of Baguio's oldest inns, it was renovated last year and a restaurant was opened adjacent to it. Called Hill Station, it's run by the family that owns Mario's. A beautiful restaurant it is with wooden beams, and large French windows flanked by loosely tied gauze curtains that allow the sunlight to filter in, making all the patrons look lovely. Shelves off to the side display pottery for sale in addition to house-made bottled goods — Filipino caviar, salad dressings, mango chutney, and whole guava jam.

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When in Baguio, eating a salad makes lots of sense. At the Hill Station, forego the Caesar Salad (P260) for the Hill Station Green Garden (P240), truly a garden of a salad with tomatoes and leaves, blueberries, white cheese, and caramelized walnuts tangled in a sesame-mirin dressing. It's one of those dishes where you can delight in examining the results of your food forage, every forkful yielding a different combination.

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As befits its un-rushed atmosphere, Hill Station specializes in slow food with an emphasis on international flavors. The waiter is quick to recommend the Cambodian Coriander and Garlic Chicken (P360), the herb's distinctive liveliness a foil to the soft chicken, only to be wakened again by the side dish of pickled cucumber. The Crispy Duck Flakes (P360) meanwhile, hides a heap of laing, an unlikely combination that plays well off of the duck, like a crispy coconut curry.

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Hill Station is elegant and romantic at the same time, both for families and more intimate couplings. Service is crisp but friendly with no unnecessary flourishes.

Where is it?

Hill Station Tapas Bar and Restaurant
Casa Vallejo Upper Session Road
Baguio City
Open daily, 7am-11pm
(74) 424 2734 / 423 9100 / 423 9558

Coming up soon: Lori's Baguio food trip, part 2

Lori Baltazar is the whiz behind the popular food blog, Dessert Comes First.


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