This Orange County Filipino Restaurant Fought Flames to Save the Family Empire

Henry Pineda, a chef, and Amanda, his wife, were on a much-needed vacation to the beach with their families on September 7, 2020. The couple had been working tirelessly at their jobs. Anaheim restaurantModern Filipino Kitchen (MFK), designed by Aysee. The long holiday weekend meant relaxation and waves. At one point, between sips and sunshine, a family member told Pineda that they’d had a premonition about MFK by Aysee. The dream was recalled by the person as a suggestion that someone should smoke some sage to clean the space and allow the smoke to cleanse it. Once the smoke had cleared the space, the sage would keep it secure.

Pineda received a phone call from a neighboring shop in the strip mall at La Palma Avenue that night at 11:11 p.m. After a mad scramble of words, one sentence stood out. “Your restaurant exploded.”

Henry Pineda thought of becoming a chef after visiting his family in the Philippines. Large groups would gather for evening celebrations and often take over the top floor at a nearby three-story restaurant. Henry loved the idea of a place like this, where everyone could see one another, reconnect, and hang out for awhile.

It’s no surprise that Henry has a family history of restaurants. Henry’s grandmother Pacita founded a restaurant named Aysee (pronounced “I see”) with his aunt back in 1986, pulling letters from the names of family members to craft a unique moniker. It’s where the young Pineda cooked some of his first restaurant meals, and is still considered to have some of the best sisigOn the planet. Although the restaurant was originally founded in the country, it gained popularity and multiple locations after moving to the metropolis of Manila. The first outlet was located in a new neighborhood that was anchored by a professional sports arena. Athletes would stop in to fuel up while training, and word of Aysee’s legendary sisig got out.

The family’s signature sisig.

Pineda, who was now an adult, decided to open his own Aysee branch. “I did not want to work for somebody,”He said. The family restaurant was already established at that time, but it didn’t have a presence outside of Manila. To gain experience in some U.S. kitchens, Pineda found work at Anaheim’s Mama Cozza’s, a trattoria owned by his high school football coach that has been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive Ins, and Dives. Henry’s coach cross-trained him in both the culinary and administrative sides of restaurant ownership.

From there, he spent time in a variety of kitchens including Anaheim’s Adya, Starfish Laguna Beach, and the Penthouse inside the Huntley Hotel in Santa Monica. Each place was a challenge and presented new perspectives on the industry. He got offers to cook in New York and Hawai’i, but stayed on the West Coast to be close to family and friends.

Pineda traveled to Manila eight months before opening his standalone restaurant in 2016, to convince his relatives that he add the Aysee moniker onto the sign outside, which was going to already have the words. “Modern Filipino Kitchen.” Pacita was against the idea initially, and it took some prodding from Henry to convince her that an outpost in California — home to more than 1.5 million Filipinos — could bring extra attention to the company in Manila. Henry opened MFK By Aysee in late 2016 with her blessing. The restaurant serves rice bowls with a variety of proteins and dinner kamayan, a Filipino traditional feast, served on banana leaves. The elaborate full-table display is arranged so that diners can sit close together and hold onto their sides, meats, and rice with their hands.

Pineda asked his ex-girlfriend to help open MFKby Aysee. This was considering the amount of work needed to build his dream project. “If we could work together”He figured out, in a volatile restaurant. “we could get married.”They did exactly that and tied the knot August 18, 2018.

Ultimately, it wasn’t a gas leak or an electrical issue that caused MFK by Aysee To burn. After considering all possible causes, the Orange County fire marshal concluded that spontaneous combustion was likely to be the culprit. This is a temporary boom caused by cooking oils trapped in towel fibers. It was a sudden burst followed by flames and smoke. The marshal suggested that towels be stored in a metal container next time.

The charred remains of Pineda’s restaurant.

But what would the next time look like? While waiting for the restaurant’s insurance company to work through its own investigation, the Pinedas found themselves with the kind of free time together that they hadn’t had since getting married. They had planned to take a year off to consider different scenarios, including reopening MFK By Aysee elsewhere. They thought about moving to Samoa and the Philippines as they offer an escape from Orange County. They had family there. Henry even tugged at the idea of building a farm in Hawai’i. The explosion had scarred the couple, but it hadn’t made them scared. They saw possibilities. “Not a lot of people get the option to choose”Pineda says that they will follow their lead.

“I just want it to feel like home. I love the life it’s taking.”

The Pinedas received a phone call from the Pinedas in early 2021 SteelCraftThe growing development brand known to erect indoor-outdoor retail and restaurant spaces within smaller cities throughout Southern California. The group backbones its projects using actual shipping containers. These containers are used to configure restaurant and dining spaces with smaller footprints. SteelCraft had asked the Pinedas for MFK By Aysee to open at their under construction. Bellflower location back in 2019, but with the Anaheim storefront still just a few years old, the timing didn’t feel right. Pinedas decided to take a walk around the space after a new call was made. It offered a recently vacant restaurant at a fraction of the original cost.

“We pray a lot, and we felt that it was a sign in the direction we should go,”Henry Pineda. MFK by Aysee had been reborn in March 2021, at least in its name and purpose. The menu was quite different. It was more casual and reflected the fast-casual atmosphere. It featured plated versions of popular dishes like barbecued pork belly and bangus milkfish, as well as pancit noodles with lumpia and garlicky chicken Adobo.

The family was able to establish a strong foundation in Southeast Los Angeles within a few months, and a renewed enthusiasm to prepare Filipino food for an audience. They began to look into new places to open, in order to find the right one. Amanda said that while she was meditating, Amanda had a vision of standing inside the former Calivino Wine Pub. Henry, on the other hand, was tumbling about the idea for a new restaurant that would honor the matriarchs in his family. The name is a Tagalog term for grandmother.

The vision was realized when the Pinedas found a buyer in the Calivino area and opened. Lola’sMFK, serving comforting Filipino breakfasts. As in the Philippines, a pro sports arena — this time Angel Stadium — is within walking distance. “At first I wanted it to be more of a fine dining approach,”Henry: “but now I just want it to feel like home. I love the life it’s taking.” Unlike MFK by Aysee in Bellflower, the new Lola’s is a full-service operation, but it isn’t static or predictable.

A Filipino man in a yellow beanie and red t-shirt stands in front of a mural.

Chef Henry Pineda

A smiling Filipino woman stands inside a restaurant with a mural behind.

Amanda Pineda.

Lola’s menu features a mix of classic silog meals, variable breakfast options traditionally served with garlic fried rice and a yolky egg. There are ube-infused French toast and French toast, as well as omelets with chicken tenderoo and avocado toast. To honor his father’s Guatemalan roots Henry has also added a huevos rancheros plate with charred chirmol salsa, an unexpected twist for the daytime Spam-and-beef-tapa crowd.

There’s a mural inside of Lola’s, depicting a young Henry offering a blessing (a sign of respect in Filipino culture) to his grandmother Pacita. The image has been passed around by all of Pineda’s family members stateside and in the Philippines, including Pacita herself. Henry has been told by Pineda that she returns to the image often, smiling just enough so to make a comment. “Wow. You made me so beautiful.”

Pineda promises that dinner will be soon, but it will follow a traditional Filipino approach. Braised oxtail Kare-kare is a must, as well as a tomato-based lamb caldereta stew (with butterflied whole bangus) and a tomato-based lamb caldereta casserole. Evening kamayan feasts can also be offered as a way for friends and family to get together. It’s a lesson found in the fires of that night back in September 2020. “Thank God no one was hurt,” the Pinedas said in a social media post to the restaurant’s Facebook page a few months later. “God’s plan is not always easy to see but our faith is strong, and we are viewing this as a blessing in disguise.”

The fire led to Lola’s, but it wasn’t really the start of the restaurant. Henry dreamed for years of a restaurant he could call his own. Something that would make his grandmother proud. He now has two. “A lot of people sacrificed a lot of things for us to be in this country,”He said. “It’s a big gamble. So far it’s paying off.”

MFK By Aysee serves daily lunch and dinner at 16500 Bellflower Blvd. Bellflower. Lola’s is open for breakfast and lunch at 410 E. Katella Ave. in Anaheim.

A yellow mural of an old woman, shown inside a bright new restaurant.

The mural at Lola’s.

2410 E Katella Ave, Anaheim, CA 92806

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