L.A.’s Newest Filipino Spot May Be Its Most Ambitious Yet
When I think of Charles Olalia I think of halo-halo. Let me explain: Upon a recent visit to the Philippines I found myself in the backyard of Olalia’s childhood home. “You can’t go to the Philippines and not come to my house for dinner,” Olalia had said. At the end of the meal, he opened an ice chest filled with halo-halo in plastic takeaway cups. “It’s from Razon’s; it’s a two-hour drive from here, but we went to get it today because you had to try it. It’s the best in Manila."
This is just how the chef operates, with an effortless hospitality and enthusiasm. Olalia has applied this same ethos to define and even name Ma’am Sir, the chef’s newest expression of Filipino cuisine, opening this week in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Named for the greeting you’ll hear throughout the Philippines as a way to welcome patrons everywhere from restaurants to market stalls, Ma’am Sir is Olalia’s take on Filipino comfort food and American classics, complete with craft cocktails. Brought to life in the old Bar Angeles space alongside the team behind Café Birdie and Horse Thief BBQ, Olalia hopes Ma’am Sir will evoke his home region, Pampanga.
“Green fields, smoked fish, carabao-drawn carriages and smiling faces all under the scorching heat,” Olalia says. These Filipino flavors are filtered through Olalia’s experience as an adopted Angeleno, as well as his time helming the kitchens at fine-dining institution Patina and his beloved counter-service spot, Rice Bar.
Olalia’s unique take on Filipino standards at Ma’am Sir include fragrant plates of beef peanut curry “kare kare” with achiote and shrimp paste, spiked oxtail and tripe ragu (a dish Olalia dubs the most reflective of him as a chef), a shattery homemade lumpia stuffed with shrimp and lardo sausage and finished with a topping of briny Santa Barbra uni, and lemongrass adobo chicken wings with calamansi schmaltz. Like the rest of the menu, it’s all meant to be enjoyed “pica-pica,” meaning at your own pace.
A wood-burning stone oven brings life to Olalia’s more substantial dishes, ranging from whole-roasted chickens to a rib eye ala pobré with citrus brown butter and, of course, a crispy skinned lechon that comes to the table alongside spicy vinegar and a Szechuan pepper mignonette.
Olalia’s wood oven pride and joy? A freshly baked red fife pan de sal served in a pull-apart crown to dip while warm into your choice of grass-fed butter or pandan curd.
“[The pan de sal] was a recipe I perfected a few years back, but after not baking it for a couple of years, I kind of lost track of the recipe,” Olalia says. “So, finding the way back to how it is now was fun and involved a lot of bread tastings.”
The relaxed vibe at Ma’am Sir echoes in the colorful tropical wallpaper and lush hanging garden. Upon visiting, you may also notice a collection of portraits of basketball players, a shout-out to the popularity of the sport in the Philippines, as well as Olalia’s feelings surrounding Filipino food becoming more celebrated and understood on a national level.
“We love [basketball] and play it so much and hope one day [a Filipino] will play in the NBA. For me to cook in Los Angeles, a full on Filipino restaurant, I feel like it’s a sort of equivalent—I’m close to the starting line,” he says.
Olalia isn’t far-off in his basketball simile. While a number of spots including Alvin Cailan’s take-out window Amboy, Isa Fabro’s Pie Project, and Chad and Chase Valencia’s Lasa (a 2018 Food & Wine Restaurant of the Year) helped pave the way, Ma’am Sir is the first of its kind for the city and a big step in illustrating what the nation is realizing more and more: Filipino food isn’t a trend, so don't bother calling it one.
“All cuisines have something great to offer as long as you give them a chance,” Olalia says. “I’m glad the city has embraced us. It’s because of our guests that this is all possible. Filipino food, like my personal cuisine, is ever-evolving, but never forgetting where it came from.”