Despite the pandemic, Fil-Am chef Ria Barbosa’s Petite Peso opens for service in downtown LA

Exterior of Petite Peso along 7th Street in downtown LA | AJPress photos by Christina M. Oriel

WITH the city of Los Angeles’ stay-at-home order that took effect nearly two months ago, restaurants have been limited to take-out and delivery, or faced the decision to close.

Opening a restaurant would seemingly be among the last things to do in this climate, but a new Filipino American takeaway spot has pushed ahead with its spring launch and opened for business two weeks ago.

Petite Peso — with Ria Barbosa as its executive chef and vice president of culinary — is the “third generation” Fil-Am restaurant to occupy the humble 275-square-foot space along 7th street in downtown LA’s Jewelry District.

Chef Ria Dolly Barbosa makes ensaymadas in house at Petite Peso. | Photo by Alfonzo Bell

It was previously home to AC Boral’s Baon for several months last summer and before that, Charles Olalia’s Rice Bar from June 2015 to May 2019.

“We’ve gotten people who are not Filipino coming in asking for stuff like halo halo before we’ve even opened. Because of what had been here before with AC and Charles’ restaurants, they set the tone and opened that gateway to Filipino food in this space,” Barbosa told the Asian Journal in an interview in early March before the pandemic shifted the city’s culinary scene. (An opening date had yet to be announced at the time of our conversation.)

Conceptualized as “Filipino food with thoughtful ingredients,” Petite Peso is now operational seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. through pickup at its location or delivery on Postmates and ChowNow. The restaurant has put social distancing and sanitization measures in place to ensure cleanliness and quality.

The long-awaited project fuses Barbosa’s forte in French and California cuisine and her Fil-Am upbringing.

“I’ve always done Filipino influenced dishes everywhere I’ve worked. Maybe two years ago, I didn’t think I was ready but I was open to trying something new and actually making things I like to make,” Barbosa said.

Barbosa led the culinary program at Paramount Coffee Project, a Sydney-based coffee shop with outposts in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District and downtown LA, from 2017 up until December of last year. There, she introduced lumpia sausage rolls and an adobo braised beef bowl, with the latter continuing to be a mainstay on the menu after her departure. Her two-year tenure garnered a “Chef of the Year” nomination from Eater LA in 2018.

She met partners Robert Villanueva and Tiffany Tanaka back in the summer of 2018 as they had the idea of a casual Filipino restaurant and were looking for the right chef. They reached out to the Pinay chef on Instagram and the project got underway.

Peso Hospitality team consists of Robert Villanueva, Ria Barbosa and Tiffany Tanaka. | Photo by Alfonzo Bell

Seeing how other Fil-Am chef colleagues have left prominent restaurants to start their own places with the free rein to cook what they grew up eating, Barbosa knew it was her time to venture off as well.

“The food is Filipino roots and an LA outlook. When you’re trained a certain way, you want to introduce a technique that isn’t traditionally used in Filipino cuisine. It might look different, but the flavors are there,” she said.

The trio operates under Peso Hospitality, with Villanueva bearing over 20 years as a sommelier and general manager at several fine dining establishments in Las Vegas, and Tanaka bringing her marketing experience with companies like Saks Fifth Avenue and the Mina Group.

Petite Peso illustrates the mission the group is taking on inside the tiny space to bring more Filipino food offerings to LA diners.

“The currency is very undervalued and that’s the way we feel about Filipino cuisine, that it’s very underutilized and undervalued so we want to bring value to the name,” Villanueva said. “We’re owning it and putting it out there by saying, ‘Hey, we are Filipino. We’re not fusion. We’re not doing tacos.’ We’re doing Filipino food. It’s something that we’re going to put at the forefront. We don’t want to mask and deny what it is.”

Pinakbet Salad and Lumpia | Photos by Alfonzo Bell

Barbosa, who moved to Los Angeles from the Philippines at the age of six, got her start in traditional French cuisine and fine dining, working at places like Michael Mina and Daniel Boulud Brasserie in Las Vegas. But, her culinary portfolio at several LA eateries speaks for itself.

Prior to PCP, she helped open Go Get Em Tiger in Los Feliz and later oversaw the food program at all its locations. She was a part of the opening team of Sqirl as chef de cuisine and was a lead line cook at Canelé in Atwater Village, where she later returned to launch lunchtime pop-up series, WILD at Canelé, which featured some familiar Filipino flavors.

Though Barbosa credits the French training for teaching her structure and how to run a kitchen, she said she’s learned to be less rigid over the years.

“You have to be conscious of how people are treated. People produce tastier, better food when they’re happy,” Barbosa said.

Barbosa had pinned down an iteration of the opening menu for Petite Peso by early March, featuring rice bowls, morning pastries and comfort food dishes based on available seasonal ingredients. Everything is fresh and made to order, given the lack of a freezer and storage space.

Adobo French Dip and Kare Kare Rice bowl | Photos by Alfonzo Bell

“With a restaurant, we want to be progressive, innovative and fun, but you can’t be too far ahead,” said Villanueva. “We have to be able to find that balance to where it’s still approachable, especially for those who have never had Filipino food in their life. We want to make it something for everyone but at the same time stick to the integrity of what we believe and know Filipino food can be.”

Standouts from the “soft digital opening” menu include the pot pie machado, adobo French dip with gouda cheese, chicken sisig salad with a poached egg, and kare kare and Bicol express rice bowls. The impossible lumpia, spring vegetable pancit, pinakbet salad and munggo bean rice bowl are available as vegan options.

Family style kits, priced $28 for two people or $50 for four, are available and come with white rice, pancit, lumpia and a choice of two entrees.

Fresh ensaymada topped with cheese | Photo by Alfonzo Bell

Not to miss are the pastries available individually or in a $25 Pastry Box: ensaymada, strawberry mamon, money rolls, and polvoron cream cookies. Barbosa also bakes pan de sal in house, an addition on the menu that came after experimenting and perfecting the recipe.

“Developing the menu was the fun part. We talked about what we like to eat and our favorites growing up — that identity of being born there [in the Philippines] and moving here to the U.S. with your whole family. We have to have the Filipino hits while keeping guests in mind. We’re not going to have dinuguan right off the bat, but the starting lineup is full of dishes we feel really strongly about and tie back to family memories,” Barbosa said.

When it’s safer to dine out again, Petite Peso will have a formal grand opening and roll out its initial plans, which include a monthly rotation of pieces by an artist or photographer featured on the restaurant’s walls. Graffiti artist Alex Kizu, known as DEFER, was commissioned to paint the space’s floor as well as the ceiling in the doorway.

Though the space won’t have the room for more than three to four dine-in guests at a time, the Petite Peso team is looking forward to the foot traffic and more interactions with those they’re serving, even if quick.

“We’d like to be known as a dependable and consistent restaurant with an emphasis on service and the Filipino way of making sure people feel welcome and comfortable,” Barbosa said.

Petite Peso, located at 419 W. 7th Street in downtown Los Angeles, is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Christina M. Oriel

Christina M. Oriel is an award-winning editor and communications strategist based in Los Angeles with experience in content, strategy and branding for media ecosystems, inclusive fintech startups, small businesses and direct-to-consumer products.

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