Petite Peso occupies a tiny storefront on Seventh Street in the jewelry district. Open for breakfast and lunch, the nouvelle Filipino café launched in April last year, just as everyone was adjusting to the “new normal” of the pandemic lockdown. It also represented the first independent venture for one of the city’s most talented young chefs, Ria Dolly Barbosa.
Barbosa is a classically trained chef with deep experience in haute cuisine. She has also actively engaged with a variety of influential new restaurant concepts during the last 10 years in Southern California.
Barbosa arrived in Los Angeles from the Philippines with her family when she was 6 years old. Growing up in Atwater Village, Barbosa graduated from John Marshall High School and immediately enrolled in culinary school in 2002. She studied at the California School of Culinary Arts just before it became the Le Cordon Bleu school in Pasadena, which closed in 2016.
“It was a 15-month program. I did my externship at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and I liked it so much I stayed in Las Vegas for five years,” Barbosa said.
“I worked in a few restaurants there. They were all pretty much that classic French style: The Mansion at MGM, Lutece at the Venetian, and in my last two years I opened Daniel Boulud’s Brasserie at the Wynn.”
After that impressive run, Barbosa moved to Salt Lake City for three years. She helmed the kitchen at Liberty Heights Fresh there before returning to Los Angeles and her old neighborhood in Atwater Village to take over the stoves at the once-vaunted and now-shuttered Canele.
When the jam maker Jessica Koslow opened her popular Sqirl as a breakfast and lunch spot in 2012, Barbosa ran the kitchen and was instrumental in fashioning the menu, a fact that has gone largely unacknowledged publicly.
“It is what it is at this point,” Barbosa said. “It’s been many years since I left in 2014. It was still a very big part of finding out that I wanted to cook Filipino food. I really started to play around there. I would say it is an important part of my career. Everything prior to (Sqirl), I had been cooking other people’s food essentially. Sqirl was really the first place where I got to really play, try my own creations and put them up as specials. Controversy aside, it is an important part of my story.”
While working at Sqirl, Barbosa met and befriended Kyle Glanville and Charles Babinski, who popped up with their coffee service at Sqirl, while they plotted the launch of their now popular chain of coffee shops, Go Get Em Tiger.
“I worked with Kyle and Charles at Sqirl,” Barbosa said. “That’s where I actually met them, because they popped up at Sqirl as well. I helped them set up and open the Los Feliz location (of Go Get Em Tiger). I was with them for about a year, just to get that project up and going.”
In 2018, she was approached by her current partners — Robert Villanueva and Tiffany Tanaka — who were looking to open a Filipino restaurant.
“They had always wanted to create this Filipino restaurant,” Barbosa said. “They were just looking for a chef. We saw eye to eye, in the sense that we wanted to make Filipino food that was — I don’t want to use the word ‘elevated.’ I can’t really think of another word. It’s not really elevated. But I personally like to look at it as my Filipino upbringing but with an LA perspective. That’s pretty much where I’m coming from.”
The group found their current location in the jewelry district on Seventh and Hill streets after the deal for their original spot fell through. “(We said,) ‘Maybe it will be better to start small,’ which, in hindsight, actually proved to be a better idea for us,” Barbosa noted.
“Our original plan was actually to open on Valentine’s Day 2020, but that’s when all the pandemic (news) started coming around. We had put off opening a few times, seeing where the whole pandemic situation was going, also watching our peers and other chef friends, to see how they were adjusting and pivoting. We weren’t sure if we were going to open at all. We had a meeting, and I voted that we should at least try. So we decided to open April 17.”
The tiny dining room was converted into a prep area for the improvised order and takeout window at the front door. There are two two-top tables outside the restaurant, and Barbosa has no immediate plan to open for indoor dining.
“Over the winter, when (the COVID-19 case rate) was getting serious — those numbers were terrifying — we had a few close scares,” Barbosa said. “We knew people that had contracted COVID. It was my boyfriend’s co-worker at the time. It was too scary. It was getting too close to our very small circle. We just wanted to be cautious, so we closed for about three months.”
Fortunately, her staff remained healthy and intact and Petite Peso reopened in March this year.
Barbosa is a creative and inventive chef and routinely adjusts the menu to the season and her own whim. She’s still considering the next round of moves for the winter. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for breakfast and lunch, there are breakfast items available until noon. These include Bistek Tsilog ($13), which serves a marinated picanha steak with tomato salad, garlic rice and two fried eggs; the Tsilog rice bowl ($12) offers a choice of the Filipino bacon tocino or a longanisa sausage patty served with tomato salad over garlic rice; and a choice of the same proteins in either a breakfast sandwich served on house-made pan de sal ($8) or in a burrito ($10). There are three salads offered ($12-$14), including sisig salad with Mary’s chicken and livers, Thai chilis and a soy poached egg tossed with a yuzu vinaigrette.
Four rice bowls on the menu include adobo ($13) with marinated chicken and mustard greens; pork munggo ($15) with Duroc pork belly, munggo beans, cherry tomatoes, spinach, shiitake mushrooms and chicharron; Salmon sinigang ($15) with grilled salmon, eggplant, tomatoes, bok choy and daikon; and the vegan Pinakbet ($12) with Kabocha squash puree, vegan bagoong fish sauce, roasted eggplant, long beans and pickled okra.
Under the seasonal heading, Barbosa’s “LA perspective” asserts itself with the Adobo French dip sandwich ($13) featuring Mary’s chicken and crisped skin with gouda cheese and an adobo jus.
There’s also the Sisig taco ($2.50) with pork belly and chicken livers and a calamansi pico de gallo salsa. Requisite lumpia egg rolls ($5) can be had as well as vegan Impossible Lumpia ($7). There is also a selection of house-made pastries and desserts, including a vegan Halo Halo ($8) employing a passionfruit and cacao nib vegan ice cream and house-made condensed oat milk. The dessert was created in collaboration with Wonderlust Creamery to celebrate Filipino American History month through October.
“We are planning on a couple of new dishes for the winter,” she said. “We were actually starting to talk about switching out a couple of the salads. I haven’t had time to really R&D anything yet. We might change a couple of dishes over the fall. I think the plan is to R&D over the fall and flip a couple of dishes for winter, making some heartier dishes for the cold weather.”
Barbosa appreciates the distinct atmosphere of her Downtown location.
“It’s a fraction of what it used to be, but there’s still quite a bit of hustle down here,” Barbosa said. “It’s great. It’s really interesting. I’ve worked in a few different neighborhoods around the city. Downtown is a little fast and furious. It’s such a unique crowd. You have a little bit of everything down here.”
Driven by Barbosa’s vision and reputation, Petite Peso has managed to establish itself as a worthy Downtown destination for discriminating foodies.
That said, the neighborhood is still getting acquainted with Petite Peso.
“There are people walking around, either who work here or who live in the area, who are still finding out about us. We have gotten a few people commenting that they didn’t know we were here. We don’t have a lot of signage. We’re here.”
419 W. Seventh Street, Los Angeles