Starry Kitchen Night at Tiara Café
Los Angeles, California
In the early days, Nguyen and Thi Tran ran an underground restaurant from the tiny confines of a North Hollywood apartment which was essentially a culinary speakeasy. As master of ceremonies and clown prince of cuisine, Nguyen would recruit patrons to dine in the cramped space while wife Thi whipped up imaginative Asian dishes behind the scenes several nights per week. In order to remain on the down-low, the Trans took donations from the diners in order to meet the cost of the ingredients. As with any juicy Hollywood scandal, word of the Trans’ dirty little secret spread, eventually resulting in them having to expand to a proper restaurant environment, an opportunity that was essentially dropped into their lap by a local restaurateur who wanted the give showman Nguyen and chef Thi (affectionately referred to as Kitchen Ninja) the opportunity to cater to a larger audience while turning his bistro’s flagging popularity around.
The new space in California Plaza became a quiet success, due in part to word of mouth, utilizing Twitter and Facebook, and Nguyen’s penchant for playing host decked out in a collection of costumes that at various points in time included a banana suit, Abraham Lincoln, Oktoberfest attire and even Darth Vader – the running gag at L.A.’s Street Food Fest annually was placing bets on who Nguyen would be portraying as he handed out Starry Kitchen’s award winning crispy tofu balls. Starry Kitchen has been experiencing growing pains as of late (a welcome curse in this economy), which led to the closing of their restaurant in July, to be re-opened later in the summer of 2012 in an adjacent property.
While the walls are going up at their new digs, the Trans have expanded as guest hosts at local watering hole and kitchen Tiara Café. For now, they’re stretching their legs after several Friends and Family test dinners but with positive feedback there is a possibility that Starry Kitchen Night at Tiara Café could end up calendared as a regular event. It’s difficult to say what menu items will carry over and which new items will test out, but based on my attendance at one of the Friends and Family dinners it should prove to be a diverse and interesting culinary adventure. When Nguyen is holding court, anything can (and usually does happen); the F-bombardier and consummate entertainer is likely to show up at tableside with his legendary balls in his hand. On my visit he adopted a joke punch line from Josie Mora (Uncouth Gourmands) and answered almost every question with an emphatic, “Why is your penis on your face?” Guests were trying to determine what the masquerade du jour was a tribute to, as Nguyen was draped in a custom-tailored black striped silk suit and matching tie, but it turns out that the joke was on the patrons as he was simply dressed to the nines.
The cuisine covered a wide swath of Asian geography with menu nods to Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar and Singapore; of course, no meal at Starry Kitchen would be complete without the perennial favorite, SK’s own Crispy Tofu Balls. These Kryptonite green globes are fried to a coated with crisp rice and fried to a crackly crunch, while the warm silky tofu inside was similar in taste and texture to a firm ricotta cheese. Skewers of coarsely ground beef nestled in sesame leaves were presented themselves as an Asian version of dolmas; the leaves added flavor without turning the dish into a ruminant’s paradise. Starry Kitchen featured a vegetable worthy of Nguyen’s reputation – grilled Chinese eggplant, its charred, purple skin removed with the exception of a small mushroom-shaped patch of flesh left intact at the end, giving the vegetable an unmistakable phallic appearance and making it the perfect accouterment to pair with his balls.
The entrees offered were exemplary; while the other ingredients in a noodle dish with dried shrimp and rib eye all but obscured the pasta, one could overlook the noodles as simply something for all that wet complex and exciting flavor to cling to. The chicken curry was mild and tender done up Malaysian-style with the heat dropped a few notches; the beige curry was sturdy and lovingly enveloped each morsel of chicken, with chunks of potato darting about to add a contrast in texture and act as a nice starchy foil. In a battle for mealtime supremacy, a striped bass dish prepared in clay pot with a thin, caramelized crust and accented with pancetta vied for top honors against a Singaporean chili crab with an arsenal of rich, red, spicy sauce firing both barrels. Although the partially cracked and dismembered crustacean required some work to get at the meat inside, the highlight was the sauce – chunks of bread custom-baked for Starry Kitchen (for its absorption properties) stood at the ready for mop-up detail, and getting every drop of the zesty, fiery fluid required a second order of baked goods.
The drink of choice for the evening was a vodka-spiked lemonade served Elvis-style that allowed imbibers to drink their liquor from an old fruit jar; it seemed that each round packed a bit more punch, with the first glass betraying nary a hint of alcohol. If the pre-opening events are any indication what the atmosphere and cuisine will be like after opening night, then Starry Kitchen is adding a new chapter to the colorful story of an eatery with humble roots as a clandestine apartment restaurant. My advice – get over there and put the balls to the wall.
GALLERY: See images from Val’s visit to Starry Kitchen Night at Tiara Café in downtown Los Angeles, California
NOTE: This cost for this meal was provided by the restaurant. The content provided in this article was not influenced whatsoever by the organizer of the event.