Filipino cuisine is having a big moment in L.A. right now, and RiceBar is one of the local restaurants that has been adding to its rising star power. (It was just named one of Bon Appétit's best new restaurants.) After successfully slinging lunchtime rice bowls for the past year, the diminutive downtown shop is now adding something different to its menu — a casual Filipino breakfast that is as comforting as memories of home.
If you step into RiceBar on a weekday morning, you might find a Kendrick Lamar track blasting on the speakers and chef Charles Olalia (formerly the executive chef of Patina) prepping his ingredients for the day. The vibe is casual, as if you just waltzed into the kitchen of your uncle’s house — and the fragrant scents wafting throughout the space hint at the meal you’re about to scarf down.
Atop the counter in the 275-square-foot space are metal warming trays filled with arroz caldo, an aromatic porridge made with a rich chicken stock and ginger; house-made, sweet-and-spicy pork longganisa sausages; and pan-fried slices of Spam. A large rice cooker is filled with Olalia’s garlic fried rice, made with high-quality, heirloom grains. Soft rolls of pan de sal sit in a basket covered by a towel, and then there are a couple of bowls: one filled with a bright cherry tomato salad, the other with a mound of crushed pork rinds. The items are labeled with lime green Post-It notes, kind of like you’re at a potluck.
If this sounds like a buffet to you, you’re kind of right. The way it works with breakfast is that you can grab a to-go bowl — one that’s actually a pretty hefty size at nearly three inches deep — and fill it up with the items to your heart’s content. You also can ask for a sunny-side-up egg made to order. That whole thing, including the egg, will run you $5. If you want to get serious and do an all-you-can-eat breakfast, that’ll set you back just $7.
The arroz caldo and garlic fried rice will continue to be the staples for breakfast at RiceBar, but the meats will change from time to time. On a different day, you might find tocino (seasoned strips of pork belly, like bacon), or tapa (cured meat, like beef jerky). The chef is thoughtful with the items he’s chosen. Olalia says the breakfast travels well and won’t stink up your office — no funky fish paste in the dishes at this time of day.
Olalia’s been wanting to serve breakfast ever since RiceBar opened last summer but decided to launch it last week because “I finally found the groove, tone and mood of the restaurant,” he says. He feels it’s just too difficult to compete with the bevy of downtown restaurants already inundating the market with dinner options, so he decided to focus on breakfast fare instead. Plus, he sees a lack of diverse breakfast options in the area, and thought it was the right time to jump in.
To Olalia, a traditional Filipino breakfast can be one thing, with two variations: arroz caldo or fried rice accompanied by a fried egg and cured meat or smoked fish. He says that with Filipino food, basically all these dishes can be served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “It’s the things we ate growing up,” and it is “invoking all those memories of family,” he says. “When I’m going to make something, I ask myself, ‘Has this been served at home?’”
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One of the sweeter highlights on the breakfast menu is the kaya toast, which you can get for an extra buck. Olalia sandwiches house-made kaya (a coconut and pandan jam) between two slices of white bread, and then presses it in a sandwich maker, old-school style. Olalia suggests you order an egg to top it and then drizzle a sticky, sweet soy sauce all over it, letting that runny yolk fall all over it, for a sweet-and-savory marriage of flavors. The kaya toast is a riff of a Singaporean dish, not a Filipino one. It all started when Olalia wanted to find a better replacement for toast. He wanted to combine French technique with Asian influences, and pay homage to his love for the kind of pastry cream you normally find in eclairs and bonbons.
Soon, patrons will get a taste of another import from the Philippines: suman, a steamed, glutinous rice cake wrapped in banana leaf. And Olalia is planning to revamp his whole menu, possibly by this week, adding lunch dishes like squid adobo, kare-kare (a peanut-laced tripe and oxtail stew) and crab and mango salad.
As for why Filipino fare is having its moment in the sun right now, Olalia thinks it has to do with how a lot of chefs who have risen up in the mainstream restaurant scene are starting to branch off on their own, and the rest of the community is open to discovering all types of food. “Everybody wants the world’s cuisine to be featured and they’re excited to see something different,” he says. “They’re excited about an influx of Filipino chefs doing their own thing. I’m excited about it. It’s a good balance of both.”
RiceBar, 419 W. Seventh St.,dDowntown; (213) 807-5341, ricebarla.com. Breakfast is served Monday through Friday, from 7:30 to 10 a.m.