Los Angeles is not the best restaurant town in the country, but it is likely the best food town — at least that’s how the old adage goes. It’s a useful thought, if not an original one, yet non-L.A. people often are left wondering what exactly it means. In the past, I might have told them about taco trucks and other street food, about Grand Central Market or about the incredible breadth of cooking in Koreatown or the San Gabriel Valley. But the next time this conversation happens (and it happens, for me, more often other conversations), I’m likely to send anyone curious about the distinction directly to Ricebar, downtown’s new rice-focused Filipino lunch counter.
Ricebar could not be further in appearance, utility and spirit from the great restaurants of the world. Owned by restaurateur Santos Uy, who has funded unique neighborhood spots in the past, this is barely even a restaurant at all. We use the term “hole in the wall” as a folksy cliche, but Ricebar truly is a hole in the wall, a teeny kitchen with a door on downtown’s Seventh Street. A guy with an iPad stands at the entrance so you can order on your way in. The divide between kitchen and customer area is double-purposed as a counter with low stools, enough seating for about seven people squished tightly together.
The entire space — kitchen, storage area, fridges, seating — is 275 square feet.
The master of those 275 square feet is chef Charles Olalia, an exceedingly friendly dude who often looks kind of happily stunned to find himself here. It is quite amazing to find him here, given that his last job was executive chef at Patina in Walt Disney Concert Hall, one of the ritziest restaurants in California. Before that, he worked at the French Laundry in Napa Valley and Guy Savoy in Las Vegas.
During the recent heatwave, as Ricebar’s small AC unit struggled to keep up, Olalia gave some insight into what a change this has been for him. “I’m used to working in restaurants,” he explained, standing in his tiny kitchen, grinning somewhat deliriously. “I’m used to things just working the way they should, and if they don’t you call someone.”
But what Olalia is bringing to Ricebar is, in my estimation, more valuable than air conditioning — more valuable than what many chefs are doing at places like Patina. That kind of food is great and worthy, and I’m not dissing it. It’s also available everywhere. But heirloom, fair-trade Filipino black rice covered in hunks of lush avocado, crisp radish, sweet pops of marinated grape tomatoes and tiny, pointy, salty, crunchy fried anchovies? You can only get that here.
The menu is built around the four large steamers in the front window, each holding a different kind of rice. Kalinga Unoy is a rust-colored red rice, grown on ancient terraced fields in Kalinga in the Philippines, then sun-dried. The flavor is lightly nutty and sweet, and it delicately complements Ricebar’s suggested topping, bistek tagalog: tender, pan-seared, soy-marinated beef. Big chunky rounds of vinegar-braised onion punctuate the dish.
Vinegar is a large component of the flavor profiles here, whether by inclusion in the dish itself or found in bottles along the counter, which you’re encouraged to shake liberally over your rice bowl. The puckery, spiced condiment kicks your saliva glands into overdrive, creating a kind of circular response wherein your food makes your mouth feel ravenous for more food, and on and on. I was tempted to swipe a bottle and hide it in my purse so I can whip it out and slosh it on everything I eat.
If there’s a must-try dish on the menu, it’s the pork longganisa, a sausage that’s made in-house. Olalia says the space is completely consumed by production of the sausage during off hours and days when Ricebar is closed, and the efforts certainly pay off. The sausage, which comes sliced and accompanied by pickled veggies, has an almost floral and aromatic yet funky flavor, and leaves a light, fatty sweetness behind. The guy with the iPad will recommend you get this over garlic fried rice and also that you add a fried egg. He’s a wise man in both regards.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Amid all this boldness, there’s one dish that’s mild and soothing. The chicken tinola comes over sweet and fluffy jasmine rice (unless you request otherwise), in a ginger-tinged broth with young papaya. Next to the other dishes it’s extremely tame, but it also has a comforting and gentle perfume, and I’ll likely crave it the next time I have a cold or wish my mom was around to cook for me.
There are various specials — a mushroom “tamale” made with sticky rice wrapped and steamed in lotus leaf, and a rice noodle dish with baby shrimp and copious amounts of egg. Both are fine, though the tamale was a little bland at first, the mushrooms a little rubbery. The vinegar sauce helped a lot, but that vinegar sauce can work all kinds of magic. I wouldn’t be surprised if it cured disease and increased IQ.
Only in L.A. would a chef leave fine dining — the type of restaurant with a water sommelier (yes, really) — for an almost divey lunch counter in order to showcase heirloom rice. Only in L.A. would we appreciate that so very, very much. New York or whoever can have the best restaurants. I’ll take the best food any day.
RICEBAR | Three stars | 419 W. Seventh St., downtown | ricebarla.com | Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-5 p.m. | Lunch, $6.75-$9.75 | No alcohol | Street parking