The lineup starts early at Kuya Lord, the new Filipino pop-up turned restaurant on Melrose. The doors are now open five days a week, but before the lock tumbler turns there are fans and Melrose Hill neighbors queueing on the sidewalk, peeking in to watch Maynard Llera and his team. They’ve come, most of them at least, for a taste of Llera’s lechon kawali, crispy-edged pork served over noodles, or as a standalone side.
The wait — both for Llera’s first standalone restaurant project, after years of working for others around Los Angeles, and for the customers he now serves — seems worth it. Kuya Lord is already making waves as the hot new neighborhood spot to hit for lunch or to take home for dinner. The small space bustles with activity almost across the entire day, with diners sitting inside on repurposed communal wooden tables or under hanging boxes stuffed with Kuya Lord branded merch and sauces. The entirety of the kitchen is on view from the center of the room, with Llera (signature bandana installed atop his head) calling out orders and directing a young staff on cuts, finishes, and the finer points of his Filipino menu.
Those fans that have been coming back for the past week or so, first as part of an invite-only preview weekend and now for the restaurant’s soft opening period, know Llera from his time running Kuya Lord as a pop-up. The name was gaining traction as far back as 2019 with one-off cooks at places like Tabula Rasa in East Hollywood, but the pandemic took the underground restaurant to new heights — and to Llera’s La Cañada Flintridge garage. There, Llera and his wife and partner Gigi would package robust takeout feasts in thin metal trays lined with banana leaves, a nod to traditional Filipino kamayan feasts found across the Southeast Asian country where Llera was born and lived until 2004, in the Quezon province. The Los Angeles Times came calling eventually, offering a warm review of Kuya Lord’s feast, as did Asian Journal, Positively Filipino, and others.
It should come as no surprise that meals this personal, this heartfelt, and this technically proficient were possible under Llera’s watch. The chef has spent years working across Los Angeles at restaurants like Bestia, and prior to starting Kuya Lord full-time was the corporate chef for the entire H.Wood Group. The attention, and the funds from his pop-ups, allowed Llera to lease this new space next to popular sandwich shop Ggiata, and it has allowed his fans to find Kuya Lord’s cooking five days a week, without needing to reserve a time slot in advance.
Now the restaurant is here, offering lunch through dinner hours starting at 11:30 a.m. until sold out. The menu is still being tweaked and expanded, but so far it mostly hinges on noodle and rice bowls laid over with that lechon as well as chicken, seared tofu, and whatever else the kitchen is cooking up. The kamayan feasts are not fully back (though Llera knows that their color, substance, and size are what has propelled him here), but a reduced portion version is available for two from the hanging wall menu inside. Specials rotate, things are coming on and off, but that’s the nature of a work-in-progress restaurant like Kuya Lord. In time the details will stabilize themselves, leaving room to grow into things like a beer and wine license, weekend block parties, and big catering trays once again.
For now, expect that the lechon and those noodles (and Llera’s desserts, like a calamansi Filipino key lime pie) will have customers queueing up early at 5003 Melrose Avenue. They are a draw unto themselves and made possible because of the pandemic and one Filipino family’s tireless vision to create something for themselves and their community.
Kuya Lord is open Wednesday through Sunday at 5003 Melrose Avenue, keeping hours from 11:30 a.m. to sellout daily (usually around 8 p.m. or so).