Arriving at a monolithic apartment complex in North Hollywood at the appointed time, you follow the directions given out in the hyperverbose e-mails sent to select bloggers and food followers. The elevator carries a few other people who seem uncertain of what they will find as they try out this “underground, covert culinary establishment” for the first time. But with the opening of the doors comes the smell of Asian comfort–food cooking and the sound of happy people. You’re at the right spot.
This is Starry Kitchen, a “restaurant” that began by serving food out of one couple’s apartment. In the intervening months the venue has taken an unlikely and unpredictable road to restauranthood, one that wouldn’t have been possible in a thriving economic climate. Whether it’s desperation or creativity, it’s working.
For the past few months, Nguyen and Thi Tran’s second-floor abode has been the most buzzed-about thing in the L.A. foodie-verse. People who know their way around the Internet have been congregating on the Trans’ balcony twice a week, chowing down on a sort of global cuisine that wife and “Kitchen Ninja” Thi creates without the help of recipes: Chinese five-spice beef in yellow-corn tortillas; sweet potato–kimchi pancakes; curry mashed potatoes. “It’s the WTF thing,” says husband and hype man Nguyen. People don’t get it at first, “but then they eat the food, and a lightbulb goes off.”
Lately, lightbulbs have been going off all over the place. Though the entire setup consists of a card table with a cash box and random chairs scattered around a courtyard that opens off apartment number 205, Starry Kitchen is already enough of an establishment that people get a little pouty if what they want is gone — which happens a lot now.
When the Trans started, about 30 people would show up, mostly friends. “I was cooking a lot, and posting all the pictures on Facebook. My friends were, like, ‘You should change your career, go into cooking.’ I thought, ‘What the heck?’ And we just basically went for it,” Thi says.
“Not ‘basically’! We just did it!” Nguyen adds.
Now, a few months later, the restaurant sees 50 to 60 people at a time, and the customers don’t generally know the hosts. The food is so good that many visitors might not realize how tenuous Starry Kitchen’s place in the world is.
“We didn’t think this through,” Nguyen says. “It was just bam, bam, bam, start on Sunday.”
The couple took anything but a traditional path.
“Facebook it, Twitter it ... I have 1,000 friends on Facebook,” Nguyen explains.
The business has been in the black from day one, although the couple doesn’t charge for meals. Legally, they can’t. As any den mother or frat brother knows, you can run most any kind of operation from a residence as long as you don’t officially charge for it. So the couple takes $5 donations for meals.
Even so, they have come to the attention of the authorities. Not long ago, a health inspector left a note on their door. “A local restaurant owner sought us out — I think ’cause his business is a little lackluster — and called . to shut down our ‘illegal’ operation,” Nguyen explains.
The attention was enough of a deterrent that the two have downplayed their current setup in favor of promoting what’s to come, which is sort of a surprise to everyone involved.
A struggling downtown restaurant called 8Fish has thought outside the box by inviting the Trans to transfer their concept to the 8Fish space, without asking for capital up front. In a matter of months, the operation has gone from one woman cooking for friends in an apartment kitchen to a fully staffed downtown restaurant.
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“It’s an amazing deal,” Nguyen says. “The economy is the driver for almost everything that’s happening right now.”
The Trans will have to compromise on some elements: They no longer can get by offering only one protein, one veggie and one side dish. Promotion will have to go beyond Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook. Nguyen is “planning a road show” to nearby office buildings via a sample cart, which will be a lot of work, but it’s also part of the couple’s homegrown style.
Even with the downtown location and an expanding business, the Trans will keep some iteration of Starry Kitchen in North Hollywood, whether in their apartment or in an actual restaurant space.
When it comes to food, Nguyen says, “There are a lot of people in the Valley who are underserved.”