The state of Echo Park’s dining scene could be viewed as dispiriting. A few years ago, it seemed as if the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood would attract restaurants with ambition to match the newly soaring rents. Exciting openings such as Allumette and Cortez showed that restaurateurs were willing to bet on quirky, high-reaching concepts that you might not see in more established restaurant districts. Alas, it was not to be — both of those restaurants closed within 18 months. While quality neighborhood eateries continue to open — Ostrich Farm seems to be chugging along nicely, for instance — it looks very much as though the formula for success in Echo Park is still burgers and beer.
Rather than attempt to buck this trend, the most interesting new restaurant in Echo Park ran with it, and pushed it even further. If neighborhood residents want cheap fun and greasy food, might they also be interested in video games, pinball and craft beers? It turns out that, yes, that’s exactly what they want. Button Mash is the new arcade/restaurant from owners Jordan Weiss and Gabe Fowlkes, along with Nguyen and Thi Tran, who have for years been known for their nomadic pop-up project, Starry Kitchen.
Button Mash is such a hit that on Friday nights a line stretches around the building just to get past the ID-checking doorman. The wait for a table can easily last an hour during peak times. Not to worry: There’s plenty to do after you’ve spoken to the shell-shocked–looking hostess while you wait for your table. Like drink beer and play Donkey Kong.
Button Mash is a lot of fun.
I say this as a person who has mixed feelings about arcades and video games, in general, and who, as the mother of a 12-year-old, has spent much of the last decade in a constant battle to keep gaming from swallowing up the entirety of my family life. When I was in my mid-20s and living in New York City, my boyfriend (now husband) proudly brought home the full-sized arcade version of Street Fighter and acted as if the mere opportunity to own such a thing was a rare and wonderful prize. I was horrified at the space it took up in our small apartment and at the energy that pervaded that apartment whenever friends came over to play.
Arcades for me as a child were places to fear: dark, full of teenage boys and what felt to me like malice. I realize these are the very things that attract other people to arcades, and some of the things that would later attract me to record stores, pool halls and punk clubs. But video games have just never been my jam. I managed to banish Street Fighter within a couple of years, an act my husband has never quite forgiven.
For all the above reasons, I’ll stay away from giving a critique of the arcade aspect of Button Mash, except to say that the games are almost all old-school and therefore appeal primarily to folks looking for nostalgic gaming. It’s also worth noting that game play is cheap, usually 25 cents a pop or 50 cents for pinball. Just $5 worth of tokens, bought from the bar or the machine in back, ought to last you the night. They’ve got Galaga, Tron, Frogger and Rampage, and promise to rotate the games regularly so patrons won’t get bored with the selection.
At the back of the restaurant is a store that sells an array of gaming merchandise, the quality of which I’ve been led to believe — by my preteen son — is nothing short of mind-blowing. This is all fairly meaningless to me.
Still, there’s something about Button Mash and its dinging, ringing energy, about the mix of customers — old and young and hip and dorky and unpredictably diverse in the best possible way — that is massively appealing, even if you’re not here to play. Button Mash is as much a bar and restaurant as it is an arcade, and as long as the cacophony of games and pinball machines doesn’t bother you, it’s a pretty enjoyable place to eat, drink and people-watch.
The involvement of Starry Kitchen is an obvious draw, though this food isn’t an exact replica of what was served at any of the pop-up’s iterations. In fact, there seems to be an effort to keep the two brands somewhat separate, in part because I get the feeling the Trans have not given up hope for their own place one day, and also because they’ve recently partnered with UberEats to offer Starry Kitchen food, separately from Button Mash. All that is to say there are no chili crabs served on huge, steaming platters here, which was perhaps Starry Kitchen’s most beloved dish. The menu is more like a greatest-hits album of Asian and American drunk food.
There are crispy tofu balls, Starry Kitchen’s other signature dish and the subject of much punnery when the Trans launched a Kickstarter campaign to finance their own restaurant and branded it “Save Our Balls.” (They hoped for $500,000 — it didn’t happen.) Perhaps I forgot how good those tofu balls were in the past, or perhaps they’re better here; crisper, larger, softer on the inside, the corn and green onions popping more, the sriracha aioli more bawdily perfect for the occasion.
The bar-food excellence continues with appropriately lacquered double-fried chicken wings, which you can get in a number of flavors: tamarind, ginger or a “tangy” version made with gochujang. There’s a cheeseburger that is, like the games, pure old-school nostalgia. Usually this is where I’d say they’ve “elevated” the burger, but I don’t think that’s the word for it: This is a devotional product, the celebration of an iconic dish rather than an attempt to better it. A lot of thought has gone into this thing, from the way the ingredients are stacked (mustard, meat, American cheese, Boston lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle) to the intense crisp on the patties. It’s really tall and really good in a really base kind of way.
There are several rice and noodle dishes that are mainly good but certainly not great — there are far better dan dan noodles around, far better spicy, cold Korean noodles. If the idea of Spam fried rice appeals to you, then you’ll probably like the Spam fried rice here — it’s just as greasy and bouncy as it sounds.
I wished the shrimp toast was a little crisper and the fried eggplant a little less spongy. I loved the gloppy cheese corn lubed up in Kewpie mayo more than I care to admit.
If it turns out that this is, in fact, the new face of Echo Park’s dining scene, maybe that’s a good thing. When your burgers and beer come wrapped in such original, joyful revelry — with tofu balls and Galaga thrown in for good measure — it somehow feels fresher than half the serious restaurants in town.
BUTTON MASH | Two stars | 1391 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park | (213) 250-9903 | buttonmashla.com | Tue.-Thu., 5 p.m.-mid.; Fri., 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sat., 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.-mid. | 21+ after 9 p.m. | Plates, $6.50-$21 | Beer and wine | Lot parking