When husband and wife team Nguyen and Thi Tran started a culinary speakeasy out of their North Hollywood apartment almost two years ago, they never would have imagined that the well-received yet clandestine dining spot in their living room would eventually become one of downtown’s hottest lunch (and now dinner!) spots.
Despite their clean and tidy operation, it was still against city health codes to operate a restaurant out of one's own kitchen. They were forced to shut down, but word had already spread. Starry Kitchen had a five star rating on Yelp and hungry customers were desperate for the fried tofu balls and other “foodie dreams” concocted in Thi’s kitchen.
Flash-forward to 2010… and the Starry team has gone legit and they’ve lost none of their magical touch. They opened a real, brick-and-mortar operation in the food court of the California Plaza on Grand Ave.
Starry Kitchen truly stands out from most of the other run-of-the-mill spots frequented by the corporate downtown lunch hour crowd. They’ve done an amazing job of combining Southeastern Asian flavors (especially from the Trans’ Vietnamese heritage) with a style unique to LA. Thanks to Nguyen, SK is also known for its prominent web presence, Twitter account and online personality.
The restaurant’s website reads more like a blog that chronicles their journey and is appropriately titled “The Adventures of Starry Kitchen”. It enthusiastically invites anyone with a craving for adventure to come try out their mouth-watering creations like the lemongrass chicken banh mi, Taiwanese fried pork chops, and braised Vietnamese beef stew. The menu is on rotation, so frequent visitors will never get bored and neither will the chef.
We got to attend a belated opening party. Right in line with the Starry Kitchen spirit established online, the party was hip and fun.
It was BYOB with DJs, photographers, and a huge welcome from both Nguyen and Thi to all their friends and regulars (when they weren’t cooking, of course).
Shev and I even got a chance to go back stage to see Thi in action.
The night’s stand-out is still one of the most requested dishes at the restaurant: the crispy tofu balls. They were unlike anything I’ve tried before; possibly the most delicious tofu treat, ever!
I’m not quite sure how they’re made but they’re definitely deep fried and adorned with festive pieces of crispy green rice. You’ll have to try them for yourself (that is, if they’re currently on the menu).
Next, we tried the double-fried sweet ginger glazed chicken. The chicken was succulent and was just the right balance of sweet and salty.
We also sampled the peanut-cilantro glass noodles (known as Jap Chae in Korean circles) which were extremely flavorful and wonderfully complimented the ginger chicken and tofu balls.
The recipes all taste homemade, and the fact that the restaurant is family owned—and the furtherest thing possible from a chain—makes a huge difference in both atmosphere and quality.
With newly extended dinner hours (check the website), there’s no excuse not to make it down and sample some of these creative concotions. This restaurant has a life of its own, and while I’m sure some of the dishes may come and go, Starry Kitchen is definitely here to stay. They’ve become nothing less than a true star in the downtown culinary scene.
Photos by Jennifer Saracino.
COMING SOON on Foodie Fridays: We'll be stopping by La Vida and Osteria Mamma.