I timidly approach the fence surrounding the space, self-conscious that I am ten minutes early to the popular lunch spot’s 3-Month Late Grand Opening Party on Thursday evening.
He looks up before I can stammer a word, a smile careening across his face.
“Do you know who I am?” I ask, unnecessarily concerned he won’t recognize me without the whipped cream on my nose from my Twitter picture.
“Diana!” He says without hesitation and leaps over the wall to give me a hug.
It feels almost anticlimactic after months of corresponding on Twitter, via e-mail and through mutual friends. I had been expecting something akin to the reunion of a mother and daughter on "Oprah" – or, at the very least, some sort of dramatic display of fireworks to mark the occasion.
Instead it feels like greeting a friend – someone who I’ve known for a while, and perhaps have seen just a few days prior. And it’s better that way. Suddenly, I don’t feel self-conscious that I’m early because it’s just Nguyen – my good ole pal. And I don’t feel self-conscious later in the evening when I work my way through six of Starry Kitchen’s famed crispy tofu balls with spicy aioli.
The party is a hit before it even begins. All the guests, many of whom are food bloggers, are wearing the same expression of expectant joy for the evening to come. They know that the dynamic SK duo, Nguyen and Thi Tran, will take care of them – Nguyen with his ever-present grins and infectious enthusiasm, and Thi with her motherly love and affectionate preparation of each item that is hustled out from the kitchen. (I also hear she is a stickler for cleanliness.)
It's Nguyen and Thi’s charming personalities that made me a fan of Starry Kitchen even before I tried their thoughtful Asian-fusion food. As I observe the scene at their restaurant on this particular evening, I can see why they have had so much success since upgrading from an underground supper club at their North Hollywood apartment. Nguyen and Thi’s personable qualities don’t just come across in the familial behavior that makes them so endearing to their fans – those traits come across in their food, as well.
The cuisine doesn’t fit neatly into any specific category. There are banh mi sandwiches on soft French baguettes, but it’s not necessarily Vietnamese. There are japchae noodles, but it’s not necessarily Korean. There is lemongrass chicken, but it's not necessarily Thai. The food can only really be described with overarching adjectives – like, “delicious,” and, perhaps even more important to their devoted followers, “fun.”
The green crispy tofu balls with neon orange spicy aioli look like a child’s experiment with Play Dough – not something that anyone over the age of three would deem edible. Yet, the bold colors seem fitting for the bold tofu balls that can be described as a more virtuous soy version of arancini. And people, including Zack Brooks from "Midtown Lunch", go nuts (no pun intended) for them. I easily eat six over the course of the evening.
The cold japchae, cellophane noodles with shiitake mushrooms and carrots, have similar personality. The slippery noodles slid around my mouth, coating my tongue with a heady bite of sesame oil. The texture is somewhat reminiscent of the jelly fish I tried at New Capitol Seafood, but the flavor is much more pleasurable to my picky palate – I can see why the noodles are such a hit side dish at the restaurant during the day.
And though I do not eat chicken wings (ever), I can’t help but help myself to not one, but two of Starry Kitchen’s tenderly spiced wings. While our face-to-face relationship has only just begun, I trust that Nguyen and Thi won’t let me down – even when it comes to fried winged things.
The excitement that marinates the air in and around Starry Kitchen cannot, however, be reduced to the addictive Shrek-colored tofu balls, some slippery noodles and a rather simplistic descriptor of “Asian-fusion food that’s fun.” The excitement is emanating from Nguyen and Thi. This is their passion. This is what makes them smile – even when they are shoving tables out of the way.
And lucky, lucky them, what makes them smile makes everyone else smile too.
Starry Kitchen is open Monday – Friday from 11 am to 3 pm. Starting this Thursday, May 27th, dinner service will be offered on Thursday and Friday evenings from 6 pm - 9 pm.
350 S Grand Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90071