Ricebar Raises the Bar on Rice Bowls

In the front are owner Santos Uy and Chef Charles Olalia. In the back is  Ned Teitelbaum  (Photo by  Jean Baptiste Dhalluin)

In the front are owner Santos Uy and Chef Charles Olalia. In the back is Ned Teitelbaum (Photo by Jean Baptiste Dhalluin)

This summer, the biggest debut in Filipino cuisine measures 275 square feet, a mere postage stamp compared with most fast food establishments. Owner Santos Uy, age 31, and Chef Charles Olalia, 32, opened Ricebar on July 3, 2015 in a former falafel stand in Los Angeles. Downtowners hug the window to see the juggling act a single chef puts on with just two rice cookers, a hot plate and a sink without a dishwasher. Though on a typical day, artisanal Filipino cooking will bring about 150 of the curious onlookers inside.

Ricebar begins serving lunch at 11 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m. daily and is located at 419 West 7th Street. Lunch bowls cost about $10 on average. Usually customers start with a rotating choice of five kinds of heirloom rice. The rice is combined with “ulam” or flavors, such as pork longganisa, bistek Tagalog and chicken tinola, which also change from week to week.

Santos is a true product of Los Angeles. He was born in the suburb of La Canada and educated at Loyola High School and the University of Southern California. In his beloved city he already owns Papilles Bistro and wine bar and dinner restaurant Mignon. Last spring, he wasn’t in the market to expand. He and Charles formed Ricebar on impulse.

‘The rice varieties we use have various textures; some play well with roasted dishes, some meld well with stews. It all depends on the mouth-feel and flavor of the rice,’ Charles observes.

“It just happened on a whim,” Santos recalls. “I was walking past the vacant space and noticed a For Lease sign on the window. I peeped in and saw a bunch of restaurant equipment and immediately called the landlord. We met, she liked me and told me others were interested in the spot so I had to act quickly. Charles wasn’t too thrilled at first. I signed the lease anyway and Charles eventually dove in with me. This happened in a span of six days!”

The tiny restaurant does brisk business without long queues. “The space is small but we make it work, and we work fast,” says Santos. “The average wait time for someone fifth in line to the time he gets his food is eight minutes, and the line is rarely over five deep. I think we can serve a lot more people, so we’re planning on implementing online ordering and delivery in the near future.”

Charles made his name as executive chef at the very French Patina. Ricebar harkens back to his Kapampangan roots with a unique cuisine he calls “home cooking.” “Every time I visit the Philippines my mom asks me two questions: What I want to eat when I get there and what I would like to eat before I leave,” Charles relates a family ritual. “An exotic rice bowl was always the last meal that stuck to me and led me to ask myself, why don’t I cook this?”

The rice is imported from Asia under fair trade guidelines. Typical choices include garlic fried rice, Milagrosa from Bangkok, Kalinga Jekot, Tinowan Fancy and Black Rice from Mindoro Pines, Ifugao Province and Cotabato Province, respectively. “The rice varieties we use have various textures; some play well with roasted dishes, some meld well with stews. It all depends on the mouth-feel and flavor of the rice,” Charles observes.

The Ricebar experience might challenge non-chefs to show imagination with a rice cooker. “You can always add flavor components, such as garlic, ginger, pandan (an Asian leaf with a sweet flavor), shrimp paste, a myriad of things,” Charles suggests.

Upcoming changes will likely affect the desserts first. “I always feel that desserts play very well with the seasons,” Charles says. “We are looking to bring in more fruit-forward ice candies.”

Santos doesn’t have immediate plans for expansion, but if he does, he would consider other parts of Los Angeles east of the 405 Freeway not far from Chinatown. Lately, the Chinese have been squeezing the Japanese out of the rice bowl trade. As Ricebar grows, Filipinos will be infringing on Chinese territory for a change. Lawfully, I may add.

Anthony Maddela

Anthony Maddela

Anthony Maddela, Positively Filipino correspondent, is working on an article on a capella singers The Filharmonic. He lives with his family in Los Angeles.  

More articles from Anthony Maddela

The Ricebar with Glaze Recipe

6 cups Kellogg's rice crispies
10 oz marshmallows
1 oz pandan extract
Zest of lime
50 g butter

Melt butter and marshmallows in microwave for 2 minutes. Stir in pandan extract. And rice crispies. Set in 9 x 13 dish. Let cool and cut to desired shape.


1 box  confectioners sugar
1 lb butter, room temperature
1/4 cup milk
1 pinch salt

Mix all. 

The Ricebar with Glaze

The Ricebar with Glaze