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WHEN news spread that Filipino American chef Charles Olalia’s four-year-old Rice Bar was closing down in May, many loyal customers deemed it a loss for lunchtime eats in Downtown Los Angeles. 

But when one door closes, another one opens. The 275-square-foot restaurant along 7th Street was quickly taken over by Fil-Am chef AC Boral, who fittingly named it Baon, tailored to the working crowds who don’t bring their own packed lunch. 

“We have big shoes to fill because people still miss Rice Bar. When they closed down, it was a loss,” Boral admits. “We know it will take some time for people to understand what we’re doing. We’re not Rice Bar but I think we’re something that’s also really good.”

Self-taught chef AC Boral, known for his pop-up series Rice & Shine, took over Rice Bar and opened lunch counter Baon in June. He will have another restaurant in Long Beach later this year. | Photo by Patrick Manalo, The Lokel Show

Boral — a self-taught chef from Oxnard who has done Rice & Shine brunch pop-ups and special events throughout Southern California for the past six years — had a previous stint working at Rice Bar and started conversations with Olalia in April to replace the lunch counter.

“Baon is a word that is really deep in the Filipino culture — food that you travel with or food that you take with you, from taking it to lunch to having it be something you bring from a family party. It’s really ingrained in us and it’s a great word to describe what we want to do out of here,” he says.

Baon by chef AC Boral took over Rice Bar’s downtown LA location in June | Photo by Patrick Manalo, The Lokel Show

By June 17, Baon opened for weekday business with a new, expanded menu, but a similar rice bowl, comfort food concept. 

“I’m very bullish on wanting to be upfront with Filipino culture and not apologize for it. It’s important to me to not shy away from what the dishes are,” Boral adds. “You’re not going to tell a Thai restaurant that they can’t name their place Thiptara, or you’re not going to tell a Chinese restaurant they can’t name it something Chinese. So why would we do the same thing for our food? It’s a word that I love and people need to learn it somehow. They’ve got to start somewhere.” 

The interior, which has a complete view of the kitchen, seats 11 diners, but like its predecessor, it accommodates take-out and delivery orders and is open from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. 

(L-R) Baon’s strawberry pork belly adobo tacos, mushroom & tofu laing, sinigang lumpia, chicken apritada, and pork belly adobo |  Photo by Patrick Manalo, The Lokel Show

The main rice bowl dishes include the chicken apritada (chicken and vegetables with tomato sauce), mushroom & tofu laing (a vegan and gluten-free version of taro leaves in coconut milk, ginger and chilies, but can be topped with an order of shrimp), pork belly adobo (a widely recognizable Filipino dish with a side of strawberry relish), and ginataang hipon (poached shrimp in coconut milk, ginger and chilies).

What makes Baon stand out as a modern Filipino American restaurant is straying from the common popular dishes found elsewhere and introducing dishes that are typically served at home like the apritada or laing. 

For those wanting an accessible, yet even deeper dive into Filipino cuisine, this place is a start or for those who haven’t had these dishes in a while, Baon can fulfill that craving. 

“I wanted to cover different flavor profiles. Filipino food is just as varied as sinigang to apritada to pork belly to suman. It doesn’t necessarily make sense if you look at it on paper if you were to share this food with somebody. It’s a showcase, but I’m also very mindful of the kind of capabilities and capacity we have in here,” Boral notes.

Each bowl is served with a choice of rice, whether white, garlic or cauliflower (in an effort to be “inclusive” of dietary restrictions) and can be topped with a fried egg. Prices range from $8-12. 

Also on the menu are “small” dishes, like the sinigang lumpia (pork, rice and vegetable filled egg roll served with a kalamansi crema), strawberry adobo taco, and shrimp taco, the latter two of which are the adobo pork belly and ginataang hipon dishes in taco form. 

“The adobo is based on my dad’s recipe and the strawberry comes from me growing up in Oxnard, the strawberry capital of the world. It ended up being a perfect compliment that cuts through the fattiness,” Boral says.

Ube suman with ensaymada butter at Baon | Photo by Patrick Manalo, The Lokel Show

Of course a meal isn’t complete without a proper sweet ending so you can find ube suman (sticky rice cooked in banana leaves based on Boral’s mom’s recipe and his famed ensaymada butter), an ube ice cream sandwich using chocolate chip cookies, and a nutter butter banana bread made with Hawaiian peanut butter, ensaymada butter and coconut curd. 

Boral credits his sous chef Janice Dig Cabaysa, who has fine dining experience, for pushing the sweet items on the menu and for also “expanding my knowledge and range as a chef.”

Chefs Sarunthy Lach and Janice Dig Cabaysa prepare for lunch service at Baon. | Photo by Patrick Manalo, The Lokel Show

Also mentioning his mentors and experience for the past six years, in particular, Boral has come a long way from his early pop-ups which he had started to get his foot into the culinary industry.

Baon joins the other Filipino spots in the downtown area, with LASA and Ord and Broadway in nearby Chinatown. 

“There’s room for all of us at the top,” Boral notes. “If our food’s good, at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to speak for it.”

The lunch counter has recently opened up Saturday hours from 12 to 5 p.m. for those who want to try the food but can’t get to downtown during the weekday. 

Baon isn’t the only thing on Boral’s plate, however. After years of the temporal pop-ups, he now has his focus on more permanent spaces, with another slated to open along 4th Street in Long Beach by the fall, with soft runs at the end of the summer. 

It is said to be the first modern Filipino restaurant in Long Beach. 

With a Kickstarter goal of $30,000 by July 17, it seeks to be a 40-seat dining establishment, pop-up venue and community space. While the name is still under wraps, we can expect more creations from Boral in family-style proportions and happy hours with tapa-sized dishes. 

“At the end of the day, the more people I can make happy based on their dietary restrictions, it’s better that way. Filipino food is about the hospitality, it’s not about ‘you can’t have this.’ We want everyone to sit at our table,” Boral says.

Baon is located at 419 7th St., Los Angeles, CA 90014. 

Christina M. Oriel
Christina M. Oriel

Christina M. Oriel is the Managing Editor of the Asian Journal Weekly Newspapers.

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