Chef Charles Olalia of Rice Bar in downtown Los Angeles has managed to do what many Patina-trained chefs do, which is to elevate the cuisine most special to them to its utmost level, then introduce it to the world. Olalia has done this with the Filipino food of his youth—specifically humbly, comforting rice and grain bowls—which one would be hard pressed to find elsewhere with his caliber of flavor. There are grain and rice bowls everywhere these days, it seems, yet none come even close to the quality or deliciousness found here.
The restaurant is really a tiny box with a counter and a few chairs spread out with a view directly into the kitchen commandeered by three massive rice pots. You pick your bowl and then which rice you want of three specially imported choices: a brown, a garlic fried or a jasmine, although they might change from time to time. On a Saturday at noon, we chose the pork longanisa and fried anchovy bowls. Olalia is a hands-on chef and we watched him oversee the line cook and then add his personal touches to the dishes like sprinkling scallions, strands of pickled vegetable atchara and crushed up nuts over the soft and delicious, richly pink, house-made pepper and garlic pork sausage. Or, the way he made sure the anchovies bowl had perfectly distributed ratios of julienned radish, tiny fried fishes, fresh avocado and cured tomatoes before pulling out a bowl of tender bits of squid and asking my Cute Gardener if he would like some on the dish too because he wanted feedback on its potential in the dish. While we ate, we heard Olalia say he was done with kale for the season. I got the impression that this chef was constantly playing, experimenting, having fun, and evolving his creations. It made me want to come back and try everything else on the menu.
When I was in junior high, I had a large number of Filipino friends and couldn’t wait to spend the nights at their houses on the weekends because the food was so interesting to my American girl tongue. I recalled loving the unexpected sweetness of the dishes, the combinations of odd ingredients like fish sauce and sugar, the starchy rice and noodles so far removed from my mother’s Uncle Ben grains and boiled pasta. Olalia’s kitchen was much the same, with lively music playing on the radio, umami in my belly, and a smiling chef transporting us to his island heritage with elan.