Maya: When we stumbled off the bus in Baguio, Bethany had been waiting for us at the depot for nearly two hours—an overturned truck in the middle of the highway had exponentially added to our travel time. Needless to say, we were all in need of a beer (or two) upon arrival; Bethany took us out to her local, a place on Session Road called Rumours, where we got acquainted with a few items that would become familiar territory during the coming weeks. One drink stretched to two-and-a-half, plus a snack, and the combination of warm food and cold beer must have unlocked my jet lag: Not ten minutes after we’d cleaned our plates, I was ready to sleep. That tiny taste of Pinoy food and culture proved to be the perfect amuse bouche, though. We woke the next morning, appetites whetted to begin the serious business of eating our way through the Philippines.
Jill: That afternoon, we once again found ourselves on Session Road, choosing between two restaurants for our first official meal out. (I’m not counting the loads of snacks we ate on the bus, the bar food or breakfast at Bethany’s because none of those experiences included rice, which, according to Bethany, distinguishes a snack from a meal in the Philippines.) Maya’s tried and true theory of selecting the more populated restaurant brought us to the Tea House, which we hoped would provide us with an introduction to authentic Filipino food.
Brightly colored and quite busy, the restaurant was exactly what we needed at the moment. (Technically, if I remember correctly, what we needed at that particular moment, was to eat. I’d reached a new point of hunger.)
Maya: You’d think we hadn’t eaten in days. I blame the jet lag. And the heat-induced thirst.
Jill: Before we move on to food, I have to take a moment to discuss vices. For some reason, the trip caused me to crave a return to two vices that I’ve eliminated from my life: tobacco and soda. I didn’t realize how much of a non-smoking culture we have here in the States until I walked into Ninoy Aquino International Airport. People were smoking inside. While I held off on lighting up, I couldn’t resist the corporate carbonation. There’s something about the heat that made my body scream “give me bubbles!” And so, the above Sprite that Maya is (so adorably, if you ask me) drinking was the first of many during the trip. I loved every sip I had of Sprite, completely forgetting that back home, the drink reminds me of the saltines and vomit of my childhood flus.
Maya: Though I’m sure there’s as much high-fructose corn syrup in Sprite as there is in other sodas, something about that lemon-lime flavor just tastes so much more refreshing. Honestly, what we really wanted was Diet Coke, but, as that proved impossible to find in Baguio, we had Sprite everywhere. “The first of many” is an understatement; I could easily have had this soda running through my veins by the end of our vacation.
Jill: On to our lunch. We started with bird’s nest soup, a tasty dish with a concept that eludes me, even today. While many Pinoy speak English, none at this restaurant spoke enough to explain to me whether there are actual birds nests in the soup. Luckily, a later trip to a market in Puerto Princesa answered the question: nests were for sale. The soup – similar to an egg drop soup – was mostly smooth with a tiny bit of texture, the nests. Before you think that we were eating twigs and pieces of moss, I should explain something that I only recently found out. The nests are made up of the saliva of its inhabitant, the swiflet.
Pictured above is bird saliva for sale. At, one might note, a relatively cheap cost. One hundred pesos equals roughly U.S. $2.25. Apparently, to get these nests in the States (or even China) one has to pay close to $30 a nest.
Maya: With certain dishes we ate during our time in the Philippines, our enjoyment was inversely proportionate to our ignorance and/or denial in regard to ingredients and preparation. Squid eyeballs, pig’s blood, and, in this case, bird saliva all fall under the category of Things We Maybe Wouldn’t Have Eaten If We’d Known Then What We Know Now.
Jill: One adjustment in cuisine that I had to accept was the concept of hidden fish. When we ordered binagoongang lechon, I happily thought I was getting pork belly. I love pork belly. Pork belly has (had) never done me wrong, so when I took my first bite, I did it with reckless abandon. Not only was my pork belly tough, but it was marinated with a sauce laden with bagoong, or shrimp paste. This taste was a brash reminder that I was in a whole new culinary world. Not only did I have fish sauce to be wary of, but tiny fish (or shrimp!) could literally be in anything. Including pork belly. (Also, perhaps this tiny shrimp would be the thing that stung / bit me while snorkeling in El Nido later in the trip. Karma, perhaps?)
Maya: I take the blame for this one. Unable to decide between the list of pork dishes on the menu, I asked our waiter for recommendations; he pointed to this one without hesitation (or elaboration). My first bite told me that I should’ve asked more questions. I’m a fan of the fermented, fishy stuff, but this was too salty, too pungent for my taste; then again, I think we could have overlooked that fact if the chunks of meat hadn’t been so chewy. We left more than half of our serving untouched, which, in our world, is really saying something.
Jill: I’m happy to report that there were no tiny fish in Shanghai lumpia. What you see is what you get. And what you don’t see is pork – similar to sausage links – on the inside of those delightfully fried rolls. The rice in the background confirms that this is not a snack, but a meal. I remember feeling a little sheepish that my favorite part of the meal was pretty much the Totino’s Pizza Rolls of the Philippines. I am lame.
Maya: I must be lame as well, then, because I think I polished off half of these myself. With a meat-based filling more heavily spiced than what I’ve had in other versions, these spring rolls were addictively good.
Jill: Bethany ordered mixed seafood with broccoli, which contained some of the only green vegetables that we would see in the entire two weeks. This dish, with its green vegetables and easily-identifiable components, was a good transition for our American palates. But make no mistake – it was not the Filipino norm; tiny fish – and any part of the pig – were decidedly absent.
Maya: I only had a small taste of her dish because, as a pescetarian, she couldn’t share what we’d ordered, but I did pick at her leftovers when she was finished. That broccoli really hit the spot.
As a whole, though, we were underwhelmed by our first dining experience; granted, at this point, we were hardly experts on local cuisine. After the table was cleared, we asked for our resident authority’s opinion. This food was fairly standard, Beth said, pretty much on a par with what she’d had in other restaurants around the country; the best meals she’d had during her time in the Philippines were home-cooked. Lucky for us, they also came from a kitchen we would soon be visiting.
If the Tea House set the bar at mid-level, our next destination promised to raise it considerably.
Tea House Restaurant
87 Session Road