It’s hard not to be charmed by Chaya. You already like it before you’re even seated, pleased with the surroundings and yourself that you were able to book an outdoors table. That you’re in Baguio to begin the year already puts you in a good mood.
The idea of having a bowl of ramen in this weather excites you to no end. And then there’s the place: a log cabin-style house turned into a most unpretentious Japanese restaurant, decked with a variety of plants your hobbyist of a mother could have put together herself.
Now all you need to do is enjoy the food—and there are lots. The menu is four pages. But you just order what comes to your head, and from a friend’s recommendation (too bad the chawan mushi is not available). You ditch the ramen idea for the more nostalgic sukiyaki, which you haven’t had in a long time. The rest of the fam fill in the rest: sashimi, tempura, Japanese fried rice and karaage for the little boy. (Gahd, we’re basic.)
Chaya appears to be a favorite among Baguio tourists and locals. It opened in September of 2010 and is run and owned by a couple: Josef Moselina and his Japanese wife Sonoko Taguchi who is also the chef. Sonoko is frugal with words when asked questions via Messenger. She doesn’t dispute the information you read in a blog that she learned to cook from her aunt and grandmother who had a restaurant in Japan.
Sonoko came to Baguio in 1997. “I liked the weather and fresh market,” she says. As for why she opened a restaurant, she tells you she’s always wanted to cook Japanese food with the town’s supplies and fresh produce.
But back to lunch. The free appetizer that starts your meal is a pinch of joy—a savory tuna with sake and soy sauce. The sukiyaki is excellent, a sweet, warm hug in this cold Baguio day. The oyster tempura is flavorful, but the chahan is a touch dry for your taste and you prefer your ebi tempura with a little more flour and fluff.
But each one in the group move on to the next unfinished plate and continue eating. Some order their Cokes. As per the little boy’s satisfied smile, the karaage is great. The wait staff is courteous. The pink toilet and the Japanese signs transport you for a second to some hole-in-the-wall in Kyoto. The overall pleasantness of lunch convinces you you will be back to order the rest of the menu.