Part of me regrets not bringing a dSLR to Baguio. My reason was that heavy equipment would hamper my mobility and I just wanted to go around and have fun. I wasn’t planning on working (shoot and write) so I figured that the Powershot G10 would suffice. Then, my friend Kat brought us to dinner at Casa Vallejo’s Hill Station on Sunday evening and I wanted to bang my head on the table. Not only was the place gorgeous, the food was even more so. And I couldn’t resist — I just had to take photos because I knew I would forever be sorry if I did not write about the experience. Alas, all I had was the Powershot G10 and these photos are the best I could manage.
Until last Sunday, Speedy and I had never been to Casa Vallejo. The girls were with us in all our previous trips to Baguio and the thing about being with kids (and even later when they were already in their teens) is that fine dining is not a realistic option. They had always preferred places like the 50’s Diner and Bliss Cafe, and everything inside Camp John Hay. But now that they’re in their twenties, the next time we bring them to Baguio, we’ll bring them to Casa Vallejo. They’re old enough to appreciate it especially when they learn about its history.
In the early 1900s when Baguio was being developed by the American colonial government, the spot where Casa Vallejo now stands was occupied by a housing facility for employees of the Bureau of Public Works. Then, a Spanish soldier named Salvador Vallejo leased it in the late 1920s and built a self-named hotel. His granddaughter, Maribel Ongpin, tells Casa Vallejo’s history, and the family’s struggles with the government to keep and maintain it, in a column she wrote in 2009. I met Maribel earlier that Sunday, at another party, not knowing her connection with Casa Vallejo. Had I known, I’d have asked her to tell stories about it.
After the government had made it impossible for the Vallejo heirs to keep Casa Vallejo, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) occupied the property then eventually leased it to Roebling Hotel, Inc. which restored the hotel and resumed operations.
In 2010, Hill Station opened. Behind it is Mitos Benitez Yñiguez of Mario’s fame. In a few short years, Hill Station became globally famous. And I can understand why.
Our dinner at Hill Station started with a salad. I’ve never been a salad person but I was smitten by the dressing they used because it had just a hint of tartness. Kat said the salad dressings are fruit-based and made fresh everyday. While waiting for our roast beef, shepherd’s pie and callos, Kat suggested we try the chorizo. And we did. The chorizo was served sliced with sauerkraut on the side. I can still taste it in my mind. After my first mouthful, I declared that it was perfect for making callos.
As it turned out, it is exactly what is used in Hill Station’s callos.
How should I describe the roast beef? Speedy hates pink meat and I hate well-done meat because, at that level of doneness, meat becomes almost always dry. Hill Station’s roast beef was not pink but it was moist, tender and lightly crusted — a perfect compromise for Speedy’s preference and mine. It was served smothered with a silky sauce so complex in flavors but, ironically, so subtle that it did not drown out the natural flavors of the meat. The mashed potato on the side was a fluffy cloud of buttery goodness.
Considering that we ordered an extra serving of mashed potatoes, the shepherd’s pie might seem redundant. But I love shepherd’s pie. It is comfort food for me and a source of nostalgia. Mention shepherd’s pie and I am transported to Christmas Eve in 1994 at my mother’s house when a two-year-old Sam was stuffing her face with the shepherd’s pie I had baked and chatting all the while as Speedy immortalized everything on video.
Toward the end of dinner, Hill Station big boss Mitos Benitez Yñiguez arrived. She’s bosom friends with Kat, introductions were made and she sat down with us for a while until we all decided to move to the smoking section where we could have our coffee and dessert. As it turned out, I was the only one who had coffee and dessert. I guess Speedy and Kat were too full, but I could not look at the dessert stand and not order anything.
I chose a slice of chocolate-lemon custard tart. Words will not do justice to this concoction. It must be tasted to be understood.
With Casa Vallejo back in business and a world-renowned Hill Station at its doorstep, it sounds like a happy ending. But in January, an Ibaloi family claiming to be the descendants of Cosen Piraso, in its assertion of ancestral land claim rights, secured a writ of possession from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) and a notice of eviction was served on the Casa Vallejo tenants. The word is that the claimants want to sell the property to a condominium developer so Casa Vallejo will have to be torn down. Amid protests from Baguio old-timers who consider Casa Vallejo as an institution and landmark, the NCIP later issued an order to maintain the status quo. The controversy has spawned a petition to “Declare the 1909 Casa Vallejo building in Baguio City a heritage site or important cultural property and ensure its future protection and preservation.” Of course, I will sign the petition.