On September 7, 2020, chef Henry Pineda and his wife Amanda were taking a much-needed beach-day break with family. The pair had been working tirelessly at their Anaheim restaurant Modern Filipino Kitchen (MFK) by Aysee, and the long holiday weekend meant waves and relaxation. At one point, between sips and sunshine, a family member told Pineda that they’d had a premonition about MFK by Aysee. In the dream, the person recalled, it was suggested that someone should smudge the space by burning some sage, allowing the smoke to cleanse the restaurant anew. Once done, the sage would keep it safe.
That night at 11 p.m., Pineda received a call from a neighboring business from the strip mall off La Palma Avenue. Through a frantic scramble of words, one phrase stood out: “Your restaurant exploded.”
Henry Pineda first thought about becoming a chef while visiting family back in the Philippines. Large groups would gather for evening celebrations, often taking over the top floor of a nearby three-story restaurant. Henry liked the idea of a dedicated place like that, where everyone could see each other, reconnect, and hang out for a while.
It helps that restaurants are in his blood. 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 sisig on the planet. The restaurant was founded in the countryside, but earned success (and multiple locations) after relocating to the metropolitan city of Manila. The first outlet was in a then-up-and-coming neighborhood, anchored by a pro sports arena within walking distance to the shop. Athletes would stop in to fuel up while training, and word of Aysee’s legendary sisig got out.
When he became an adult, Pineda decided he wanted to open his own branch of Aysee. “I did not want to work for somebody,” he says. Besides, the family restaurant was already well-established at that point, though it lacked a foothold 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 presented a new challenge and a new way of looking at 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.
Eight months before opening his first standalone restaurant in 2016, Pineda traveled to the Philippines to convince his relatives to let him add the Aysee moniker to the sign out front, which was already going to contain 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. With her eventual blessing, Henry opened MFK by Aysee in late 2016, serving rice bowls with various proteins and dinner kamayan service, a traditional Filipino feast served on banana leaves. Diners sit close together, corralling meats, sides, and rice from the elaborate full-table display with their hands.
Pineda asked his then-girlfriend to help him open MFK by Aysee, considering the work that would be needed to build his dream project. “If we could work together” in a volatile restaurant, he figured, “we could get married.” They did just that, tying the knot on August 18, 2018.
Ultimately, it wasn’t a gas leak or an electrical issue that caused MFK by Aysee to burn. After isolating various options, the Orange County fire marshal said that the likely culprit was spontaneous combustion, an ephemeral boom created by cooking oils trapped between towel fibers. A sudden burst, then flames, then smoke, and that was it. The marshal suggested maybe keeping towels in a metal bin next time.
Except what would next time even 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 planned to take a year off after the incident to think through various scenarios, including but not limited to reopening MFK by Aysee somewhere else. They considered moving to the Philippines or maybe to Samoa, both places that would offer an escape from Orange County. Plus, 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. Instead, they saw possibility. “Not a lot of people get the option to choose” their path, says Pineda.
In early 2021, the Pinedas got a call from SteelCraft, the growing development brand known for erecting indoor-outdoor retail and restaurant spaces in smaller cities across Southern California. The group backbones its projects with actual shipping containers, configuring them to create restaurant and dining spaces with smaller, more communal footprints. SteelCraft had wanted the Pinedas to open a location of MFK by Aysee 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. When the new call came in, offering a recently vacated restaurant for a fraction of the original amount, the Pinedas decided to at least go walk the space.
“We pray a lot, and we felt that it was a sign in the direction we should go,” says Henry Pineda. By March 2021, MFK by Aysee was reborn, at least in name and motivation. The menu was largely different, playing to the fast-casual ambiance with a more grill-focused menu that includes plated versions of mainstream dishes like barbecued pork belly, bangus milk fish, and garlicky chicken adobo alongside pancit noodles and lumpia.
Within months the family found its footing in Southeast Los Angeles, and with it a renewed energy to cook Filipino food for an audience. The couple began researching possible new restaurant locations, to see if anything felt right. One day while meditating, Amanda says that she had her own vision of standing inside the former Calivino Wine Pub in Anaheim. Henry, for his part, had been tumbling around the idea of a new restaurant that would further honor the matriarchs of his family, named for the Tagalog word for grandmother.
Following the vision, the Pinedas found a willing seller in the Calivino space and opened Lola’s by MFK there in March 2022, serving comforting Filipino family 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,” says 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.
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 pancakes and French toast, omelets with chicken adobo, and purely California fare like 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 that she returns to it often, smiling just enough to remark: “Wow. You made me so beautiful.”
Dinner is coming soon, Pineda promises, though it will hew to a more traditional Filipino approach. Braised oxtail kare-kare is a must; a tomato-based lamb caldereta stew and butterflied whole bangus fish have also made the tentative menu. Evening kamayan feasts will also be offered as a way to gather friends and family. 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. For years, Henry only dreamed of having one restaurant that he could call his own, something to make his grandmother proud. Now he has two. “A lot of people sacrificed a lot of things for us to be in this country,” he says. “It’s a big gamble. So far it’s paying off.”
MFK by Aysee keeps daily lunch through dinner hours at 16500 Bellflower Blvd. in Bellflower. Lola’s is open for breakfast and lunch at 410 E. Katella Ave. in Anaheim.