To the uninitiated, Ma’am Sir might be an odd name to give a restaurant, but those who’ve been to Manila would instantly get how truly Pinoy it is. A Fil-Am standup comedian once joked that the first time he heard it, it made him wonder what kind of animal he was being called. Ma’am Sir (mamser in Pinoy slang) is the greeting one hears while walking through markets or placing an order in fast food counters in the Philippines. For Los Angeles-based chef Charles Olalia, the greeting is a display of courtesy that characterizes Filipino hospitality.
The vibe at Ma’am Sir is as relaxed as if you were at a bar anywhere in Southeast Asia. It has a tropical frond design on the wallpaper and foliage and ivy hang from the ceiling. But what makes it unmistakably Pinoy is a collection of portraits of basketball players, dating back to the Crispa-Toyota rivalry. I even saw a photo of Atoy Co on the way to the washroom.
A Philippine flag greets you as you enter the door, while the exterior of the restaurant is the iconic mural Elliott Smith posed against for the album cover of Figure 8, and now serves as a memorial to the troubled and beloved musician.
Charles Olalia has worked in the kitchens of fine dining stars Guy Savoy and Thomas Keller and served as executive chef of Patina, one of LA’s notable upscale establishments under chef/owner Joachim Splichal. Now, he has gone back to his roots to showcase the unlimited possibilities of modern Filipino food.
Ma’am Sir, which just opened this June, has been reaping rave reviews. The restaurant has been included in the Los Angeles Times’ annual ‘101 Restaurants We Love’ list. It has also earned praise from Eater, as one of the ‘18 hottest restaurants in LA right now,’ as well as a four-star review from TimeOut.
“Think of Ma’am Sir not so much as the latest of L.A.’s new wave of wonderful Filipino restaurants but as the triangulation of chef Charles Olalia’s career,” L.A. times food writer Amy Scattergood writes. ”The first two points were Joachim Splichal’s Patina, where the young Filipino American was executive chef, and Rice Bar, the seven-stool lunch counter Olalia left the fine-dining universe to start, an ode to the comfort food of his Manila childhood.” Scattergood enumerates the homey traditional Pinoy dishes like adobo, sisig, kare kare and lumpia, but mentions how Olalia’s, “classical training is coming through. The lumpia is built with shrimp mousse, uni and lardo. The mango-jackfruit tapioca dessert comes in the form of an actual verrine. The milkfish inihaw, split whole and grilled, the top caramelized until it has the crackle of crème brûlée, is so good you’ll actually dream about it. “
I visited Ma’am Sir, about a month and a half after its opening, and like Scattergood, I still dream about Olalia’s dishes. I especially long for the Shrimp Deviled Eggs described on the menu as Palabok-Egg Salad and Celery Hearts. It had the punch of Pancit Palabok’s intense flavor in one bite. It was so elegantly presented compared to the saucy mess over bihon noodles that we know back here. The same goodness, without the carbs.
Palabok or Pancit Luglog as we call it at home was a dish I grew up preparing from scratch with my mother. My tasks in the kitchen would be to pound shrimp heads for the sauce, and to crumble chicharon and tinapa fillets (smoked fish) for the toppings of the dish. I would be fascinated watching my mother prepare a complicated dish with so many elements. Given its place in my childhood, the dish is my ultimate comfort food. And for the flavors to come back to me in a rush of nostalgia— in a restaurant in Los Angeles, no less— was a very comforting feeling. It’s one I’m sure I share with other Filipinos who’ve come to the restaurant.
Chef Charles says the menu draws inspiration from dishes he grew up on—specifically, dishes from Pampanga. It’s not only where Charles was born, it’s also the food capital of the Philippines. These are flavors that chef Charles hopes to make more accessible to a bigger community. (During the visit, I noted that more than half of the diners were non-Pinoys)
The Thao Farms Heirloom Tomato Salad with pickled bitter melon (ampalaya), basil, calamansi, onions and crispy leaves (perhaps kangkong) was also very refreshing. Charles shaved some salted fish roe (bottarga) over the salad at our table and told us it was his take on salted eggs and tomatoes—a typical Pinoy side dish. It was ingenious. Chef says he put the source of the vegetables, Thao farms, on the menu to recognize the incredible produce of the Laotian family.
The kare-kare’s entry on the menu was as beef peanut curry with oxtail and tripe rage, achiote, shrimp paste and toasted rice powder. The vegetables and shrimp paste arrive at the table separately—again so different from how it’s served in a Pinoy home. And the shrimp paste was just the way it should taste, not overly sweet as some restaurants in Manila are prone to doing it.
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Pork sisig–sweetbreads, Maui onions, serrano chili, green onion, calamansi.
Butter roasted garlic prawns.
Homemade Lumpia is stuffed with a shrimp and lardo sausage then topped off with fresh sea urchin.
Lobster Inihaw is chef Charles’ spin on lobster thermidor incorporating a rice bechamel flavored with smoked fish, coconut, chilis and citrus, on a bed of purple heirloom rice.
Oro, Plata, Mata with Laphroaig 10 year, Amaro Angeleno, Aquavit, Lillet Blanc and Fortaleza Blanco.
The Captain Barbell, made with brandy, passion fruit, calamansi, pineapple, paprika and angostura bitters.
Corned beef pan de sal made with house cured angus brisket, old fashioned mustard, tomato.
Pork sisig burrito
Garlic crab noodles, toasted coconut, Thai basil, lime crème fraiche.
Milkfish inihaw–pickled vegetables, tomatoes, soy glaze.
Dishes on the menu are meant to be shared, pica-pica style, the way we do it here. I certainly wanted to try the pork sisig (sweetbreads, maui onions, serrano chili, green onion, calamansi) and the Manila mango verrine dessert (coconut-jackfruit tapioca & verjus sorbet) of my dining companions. I was lucky enough to catch Charles at the pass as he was calling out the dishes from the kitchen and he insisted we try his pan de sal and the lumpia. The bread is freshly baked courtesy of his kitchen’s wood-fired oven, and the pan de sal (Charles’ personal recipe) was made the way I remember it from long ago—dusted with crumbly bits. It was served with grass-fed butter and pandan curd. The lumpia, on the other hand, was not your usual wrap, because it was topped with sea urchin.
Other items on the menu that will have to wait for another trip to L.A. are the rib eye a la pobre and the crispy lechon with spicy vinegar and Szechuan pepper mignonette. My other regret is also not sampling the cocktails—which pay homage to Filipino movies.
Rafa DaCosta (previously of Aatxe by The Bon Vivants, Hecho and Pisco Lounge in San Francisco) leads Ma’am Sir’s bar program to match the comfort food dishes by Charles. Some of the cocktails take their inspiration from iconic Pinoy films like Oro, Plata, Mata, Captain Barbell, Scorpio Nights and Burlesk Queen. The best restaurants are always those that give you reasons to come back. In the case of Ma’am Sir, I have too many to count.
Ma’am Sir is located at 4330 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90029. Website: www.maamsirla.com