A hidden gem with a noble mission
(An article I did for Focus Weekly, an avantgarde corporate newsmagazine in Northern Luzon)
The clandestine in Baguio’s food scene
If there are instants in life that remain vignette in my memory, it would be visits to Baguio dimly lit with the permeating sense of the holiday just because it’s cold and you get to enjoy a cup of chocolate de batirol every now and then. It goes without saying that I’m one of those people who enjoys the place a tad much; the sight of pine trees is enough to send me to a giddy anticipation of the ever present strawberry taho or the endless ukay-ukay disorder.
Being the brilliant up, up north, Baguio has a very diverse population where the rich and poor, the highbrow and lowbrow, and the local and foreign coexist in a hectic and ultimately unique manner. It is this blend atmosphere that has kept the rise of numerous restaurants, and solidifies the city’s reputation as a destination for any serious foodie.
There are certain places that seem to get all the attention, from popular bistros to mountain side treats. Don’t get me wrong; I love those spots, too. But there are other places that seem to fly under the radar, frequented only by those who are in on the secret. While most people automatically think of the Session Road as the city’s food hub, there has been increase in the variety of choices for people looking for truly unique dining experiences. So, if you’re in search for that or would like a quick fix of quite time, you can add range to your routine by checking out some of the area’s hidden gems for a breather from the hustle and bustle. Baguio has small hole-in-the-wall type restaurants which offer great tasting food and interesting concepts at affordable prices.
Consider this story your key to that club. :)
Reflecting the city’s diverse nature, restaurants in the area feature cuisine from a wide scope of cultures. Others are reflected by the no-generic, back-to-basics approach that depends mostly on food presentation. But players have emerged to the table such as the ever-present cafés. However, with shops shilling everything from cold brews to a hundred-peso cup of coffee, it’s hard to separate the real-deal joints from the flash-in-the-pan trendsetters.
What I look for in this caffeinated nation is good coffee, good environment, and good company. Under the Tree Book Café is one of those that are beyond one’s coffee fad—my shot-after-shot-of-delicious-espresso kind of craving.
Opened in 2012 by Korean Born Again missionary Seo Young Jung (better known as “Sam” to the locals), Under the Tree Book Café has since transformed to a full service with a loyal following. It bills itself as the only book café and one of the few grown Korean ventures in the city, located at the Baden Powell Inn Building along Governor Pack Road. Being off the center of coffee shop action, the place is great for hours of undisturbed hanging out.
Having been around for 2 years, Jung has seen the evolution of Baguio from a primarily commercial and industrial standpoint due to the greater awareness of public to culinary styles brought about by television and the Internet. But as staffer Ruth Grace Andong tells it, the business’ birth occurred with a simple idea, moving from Korea to Philippines, fulfilling a selfless vocation, and then opening the shop.
There’s nothing quite like being around people who’re passionate about their craft, great customer service, and positivity, and people who understand what it means being able to give back to the community. They care about their customers and what they want, and they take a lot of pride in providing a great atmosphere for everyone. A good example is that their baristas have a knack for offering simple and flavor descriptors for each on their menu.
The vibe here—”Youth, Groups, and Casual”—owes much to the shop’s proximity to the University of Cordillera (UC), but looks can be deceiving. The space is deceptively large, with a tastefully view of the outside world.
Deeply- rooted in the K-pop culture specialty, its interior is a sight to behold. It gives you a sense of that countryside feel, only morphed with scruffy dens of laptop-toting UC students, a classy bar with creative food pairings, a wall of thousands of post-its containing Bible verses and whatnot, Korean ornaments, and shelves upon shelves of English and Hangul books. You wouldn’t pass up the opportunity for a photo story; all corners are Instagram-worthy.
With all that being said, is Under the Tree Book Café the trendiest coffee shop in Baguio? No…but is Baguio’s coffee scene better by a dint of its existence? Absolutely 100% yes! And I’m not just saying it to quiet the reviewers. In fact, for the sheer aesthetic joy of it all, it may be one of the most ineffably charming cafés in the city. The glass tables, the chalkboard-painted door, the cartoon illustration at the refrigerator, the Simonelli espresso machine—all the tiny details that give it the more personality.
As amazing as the interior is, it pretty much delivers in the food department as well. Their coffee taste great, and the moderate aroma and flavor is inviting. Their caramel macchiato permeates my mouth without being rude or bitter. It was a delight to drink.
And their pastries are heavenly, although limited in selection. Their silky textured and slightly tart cheesecake surrounded by a buttery, crumbly graham cracker crust is perfect in simplicity; not too thick, not too light, but just right. But the cream puff is downright the winner for me. It has the best creamy and delicate content but not overly sweet. It may not be the most au courant dessert these days compared to cupcakes but they’re positively old school. And I like old school fares.
But beyond the beautiful interior and delectable food lies a meaningful mission. Jung, seeing that there were many Filipinos who live in poor condition, decided to extend the shop’s proceeds to help those in need, as boldly stated on their menu board, “All profits will be used for helping people who need a hand.” He has already facilitated fund raising projects for the residents of Barangay Happy Hollow and Irisan, both impoverished areas in the city, and plans to stand his own building to accommodate an aid foundation inclusive of a library and a sports area to spur improvement in self-concept among the youths.
This compassionate gesture after all is what makes Under the Tree Book Café a sanctuary. Not only do you feel comforted from a sip of coffee; you instinctively impart a good cause which is more nourishing to the soul. So, check this hidden gem out and stop by for a morning wake-up call or just an afternoon indulgence of a delicious piece of cream puff, a drink of your choice, and a book at hand.
So, what if you can be a charitable citizen and a satisfied epicurean at the same time? Turns out you can.