After closing RiceBar in 2019, Charles Olalia is re-opening it to feed takeout rice bowls to the community and pay some staff. “It was very hard for me to just not do anything,” he said.

By Andy Wang
Updated July 13, 2020
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Chef Charles Olalia had every intention of bringing back his beloved RiceBar restaurant, which jump-started L.A.’s modern Filipino movement when it opened in 2014. Last year, he closed the downtown restaurant because his lease was up, and he had a much larger restaurant, Ma’am Sir in Silver Lake, that required his attention. But in recent weeks, Olalia had been doing R&D for RiceBar 2.0 and teasing it on social media as he worked toward offering his affordable and nourishing rice bowls for delivery.

He just never imagined he’d be making all these bowls alone in the kitchen of an otherwise completely empty Ma’am Sir. The plan wasn’t for him to be the prep cook, line cook, dishwasher, and janitor while he also took e-mail orders, answered the phone, and packed each takeout bag. But there he was last week, preparing longaniza and ginger chicken tinola, and doing every other single thing that was necessary.

RiceBar rose from the ashes and started serving food again on March 17, during the week when L.A. was locking itself down to lessen the spread of COVID-19. The reason Olalia decided to bring back RiceBar last week was simple: He knew Ma’am Sir had to end its dine-in service, and he still had a lot of food in his walk-in refrigerator. Olalia asked his staff if they wanted any food, and they told him to keep it.

“That’s when it hit me,” Olalia said. “This is going to be the menu for RiceBar. I’ll make it into bowls.”

Last week he had a RiceBar menu with $9 bowls and also made his Ma’am Sir menu available for takeout. But he’s since realized that this is too much for him to do at once. So now he’s primarily making RiceBar dishes, although he’s still repping Ma’am Sir this week with a big fried chicken platter.

It felt natural for Olalia to run RiceBar by himself last week. He’s the type of chef who’s prone to cleaning things and doing prep work in the kitchen even when he’s got a full staff at Ma’am Sir. RiceBar, which was previously a seven-seat, 275-square-foot counter-service restaurant on a nondescript street, was and still is about as DIY as it gets in the restaurant industry. (RiceBar’s email address is still ricebarla@gmail.com.)

But Olalia, who didn’t cook over the weekend because he wanted to spend time with his wife and son, isn’t just doing this for himself, of course. He had a busy first week, so he’s now able to give work to some of his Ma’am Sir employees again.

“Now I have a little bit of a bankroll,” he said on Tuesday. He plans to bring in an employee every day “until I get back to that very critical level where I can’t provide them with proper pay.”

I ask Olalia if he plans to order more ingredients when he clears out his walk-in refrigerator.

“You know, I think I’m going to keep going, man,” he said. “I just bought another case of rice bowls. For as long as it’s responsible to do it, I will keep doing it, because it’s also my therapy and my way of coping.”

He, like many chefs, starts feeling out of sorts when he’s not cooking. He remembers a time when he was in between things and had not yet started his Filipino pop-ups that led him to where he is now.

“It was very hard for me to just not do anything,” he said.

He knows that one thing L.A. needs now is comfort food. Even before COVID-19 hit, Olalia got messages asking if he would do bulk orders of longaniza. Now the demand for food like soul-warming chicken adobo and nutritious veggie bowls is something that feels a lot more urgent. Ma’am Sir is near a couple hospitals, and Olalia has noticed that many of his customers are nurses who are picking up food for the next day.

“I’m trying to sort something out where I’ll be able to send food to hospitals,” he said.

He comes from a family of doctors in the Philippines, and he has relatives, including his father, who have been exposed to the virus.

“It’s the first time I spoke to my dad where he didn’t have any answers for me,” Olalia said. “He just sounded helpless. He’s in self-quarantine. The fact that he had no answers for me, it was just wow.”

So Olalia is focusing on the thing he can control. When he’s at the stove, he knows what he should do.

“RiceBar has always been my high-school sweetheart,” he said. “It’s always been that one that I knew was it.”

RiceBar has always been a way for him to connect with people, a way for a classically trained chef with fine-dining experience to celebrate his heritage while serving meals that don’t cost more than a lot of fast food. Beyond his exceptional cooking, Olalia is known for having one of the brightest smiles in L.A. He exudes happiness during normal circumstances. But nothing is normal now.

“The thing is, had you asked me about this last week, I would have probably been like, ‘No, I don’t want to talk about it,’ because we’re all just so distraught,” he said.

He wouldn’t have known what to say last week. But he had a good week in the kitchen, working alone and realizing that what he’s doing matters a lot to a lot of people.

RiceBar at Ma’am Sir, 4330 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles