Starry Kitchen is the perfect name for this restaurant, as the stars must have been aligned when formidable home chef Thi Tran married Nguyen Tran, perhaps the greatest promoter since PT Barnum. Starry Kitchen started out as an underground experiment in Thi and Nguyen’s apartment in 2009, where they rose to the top of the Yelp ranks. They eventually moved from one legit restaurant to another, and have settled for the time being in the old Grand Star Jazz Club in Chinatown. Still, you may want to follow them on twitter just to keep up. ‘Cause, yeah, they also have a bahn mi pop-up every Friday at 727 N. Broadway. And maybe that space will become a second restaurant, or maybe they will just move there. Or maybe they won’t. As Nguyen would say, “Check your twitter feed, FOO!”
Nguyen is known for showing up at food festivals dressed in a giant banana suit and making dirty jokes about their infamous balls. In fact, he may be the only person I know who curses more than I do. As maitre D’ and expediter of the restaurant, he is superenergetic, greeting you by name and giving detailed tableside lessons on how to pry the last bit of sweet meat out of the crab shell. But all that hype and friendliness would not get them anywhere if the kitchen didn’t deliver. And deliver it does. You can catch a glimpse of Thi working her ass off in the kitchen with a few line cooks, who, according to a recent job advertisement, are “No BS and drama-free.” Whether it’s a relaxed weekday evening or a bustling Saturday night, amazing and delicious dishes flow in a steady stream out of that kitchen and into your mouth.
The Crispy Tofu Balls have not held a cherished place on the menu simply to provide opportunities for off-color humor. These day-glow green crunchballs are filled with tofu and bits of vegetables, crunchy on the outside and silky-smooth in the middle. A spicy sauce is drizzled on top, with more provided for dunking, making them perhaps the perfect snack. Other apps like the Double-fried Chicken Wings seriously kick ass and often sell out. The Pandan Chicken comes wrapped in a slightly charred leaf, which has a learning curve for opening with those slippery plastic chopsticks. After removing the pik, hold the leaf by the edge and let it unravel itself, dropping the moist steamed chicken on your plate. On the night we ordered it, it was accompanied by a delicious and unexpected watermelon pickle. For serious connoisseurs they offer a limited amount of fish heads and tails, but I’m just not that gnarly.
Noodles on the current menu include their cult favorite, Japanese Garlic Noodles, which are a great choice for a side if you don’t go for the unbelievable pork belly X0 fried rice (“X0 is a super-special Cantonese sauce made of dried scallops, shrimp and ham”). Or get them both, especially if you have more than two people. Personally, I have to watch my carbs to keep my girlish figure.
A couple can easily get out of the place with three dishes for less than 40 bucks. The Malaysian Chicken Curry is a steal at $14. Made with an Indonesian Sambal curry from the Netherlands, chicken on the bone is bathed in a thick yellow curry. And you don’t have to eat that chicken drumstick with chopsticks, at least I don’t. Other great choices are Braised Sweet Soy Sauce Ginger Pork Belly, one of the non-spicy, richer dishes, and Sweet+Sour Rib-eye Beef in a sauce that is a house-made traditional/classic Cantonese sweet+sour sauce. Sweet + Sour Ribeye is one of the few coated and fried dishes, like gourmet Chinese take-out.
Still, something worth doing is worth doing right. Spurge on the Claypot Carmel Striped Bass (“Ka Cho To”), which is Nguyen’s “Death row last meal” meal. The fish is improved by breaking it up and returning it to the claypot to really infuse it with the sauce.
If you want to try my “Death row last meal” you will have to reserve the Singaporean Crab ahead of time, like 24 hours ahead. But it’s always worth checking to see if there were any cancellations. The dungeness crab is pre-cracked for your convenience and floats in an insanely addictive chili sauce that takes 2 days to make. New Orleans-style beignets dot the dish, providing a mild and pillowy respite from the spicy sauce. It is advertised as “Market Price” as shellfish often is; a month ago it was around $69. The price does fluctuate, so it is sometimes only $50. Before you totally freak out, that feeds three to four people. We usually see a table of four enjoying the crab and only the crab, so even at $69 that’s less than 20 bucks a person, totally reasonable.
Starry Kitchen also serves a Pineapple Beer Chicken Wing Soup, vegetables, and desserts. We recommend the Salted Plum Lychee Panna Cotta to cool your palate after the spicy food. The Grand Star Bar is still open and will serve your table with soft drinks and a full bar. They charge separately, but take all major cards. The old Grand Star Bar is kind of jacked up, making the restaurant ambiance early dive bar. But it adds to the feeling that even though they have gone legit, you’re still an underground rebel for eating there.
Starry Kitchen does deliver, contact them to see if you are within cycling distance. There is parking right next to the restaurant in front of the Bruce Lee statue. You can make a reservation on their website or call (213) 814-1123. They also cater. Unless you’re a D-bag, then no.
Go! Now! Or…call 24 hours in advance to reserve a crab and then go!
The Grand Star 943 N. Broadway St, LA, CA.