When It Comes to Rice Bowls, It’s What’s Underneath That Counts

The fad has chefs clamoring for flavorful heirloom varieties

In the great alternative grains revival of the last decade or so, the hubbub has surrounded ancient varieties like quinoa, farro, and spelt. Rice, however—the staple grain for nearly a third of the world’s population—has been largely overlooked, considered bland and too familiar. But head to Rice Bar, the new Filipino lunch counter from Patina alum Charles Olalia and Papilles’ chef-owner Santos Uy, and you’ll see crowds plucking sticky black morsels from beneath slices of pork longganisa or reddish kernels from among crisp dried anchovies and avocado hunks.

“Rice is like the sun to the solar system for Filipinos,” says Olalia, who was inspired to open a rice bar after spying the array sold at markets in the Philippines. His downtown shop serves grains from his home country as well as Thailand, imported by sustainability- and community-minded companies, including West Covina’s six-month-old Social Project. “Flavors range from mild to fragrant and nutty, and the texture can be very moist and sticky or very dry,” says Olalia.

Jessica Koslow’s Sqirl, in East Hollywood, uses Koda Farms’ Kokuho Rose brown rice, a storied heirloom variety from Northern California, for breakfast bowls topped with sorrel pesto or stewed into a porridge with jam and hazelnuts. “I started researching Cali-fornia-grown grains and found Kokuho Rose,” says Koslow. “It cooks like quinoa, and it has everything I want: It’s tender, not incredibly toothy, and nutritious.”

Koda Farms’ third-generation owner, Robin Koda, brings her proprietary rice to the Santa Monica and Hollywood farmers’ markets once a month. That’s where Minh Phan—founder of the now-on-hiatus congee pop-up, Porridge & Puffs—discovered the lush grains that form the base for braised short rib or diver scallops in rich XO sauce. “This is part of a trend that’s taking meat away from the center of the plate and replacing it with grains and vegetables,” says Phan, who is on the lookout for a permanent space in Northeast L.A.

One thing we can do to make better rice at home? “Wash it,” says Olalia. “And watch your heat.”