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Eating "Sunshine and Rainbows" at Starry Kitchen

By Pamela Rouse
Published: Monday, February 22, 2010, at 06:38PM
Team Starry Kitchen Pamela Rouse [Flickr]

Starry Kitchen's Thi and Nguyen Tran stand inside their new space on the California Plaza Watercourt.



As business men and women were making their way to lunch today in the courtyard of California Plaza's Watercourt, I overheard this exchange. "Starry Kitchen?" one man answered another. "Yeah, I've eaten there twice."

Not bad for a place that has only been open four days. Starry Kitchen has relied on word of mouth and a strong social media presence to help kick-start its Downtown launch.

Offering "modern Pan-Asian Comfort food," the eatery by Nguyen and Thi Tran focuses on perfecting a small and constantly-rotating menu. Main dishes will be rotated every two weeks or so, with sides changing several times a week.

The current main menu of Korean short ribs, Free Range Lemon Grass Chicken and Crispy Tofu Balls will be rotated out for other menu items starting next Monday. The restaurant is currently open only for lunch, but the pair plans dinner service once they get their feet under them.

"We do everything fresh.. Nothing is prepackaged," says Nguyen. "Thi makes everything with fresh ingredients. There's a lot of prep time involved." A four-hour lunch shift may involve 16 hours of prep.

Starry Kitchen was born far from Grand Avenue in the Tran's North Hollywood apartment. Thi was working in advertising, and had a love of cooking. A self-taught chef, she would try new dishes, then upload photos to her Facebook profile. These photos became the topic of many online conversations, and when Thi was laid off last April her friends suggested the obvious: start cooking!

The pair began to serve home-cooked meals out of their apartment once or twice a week, posting the day's selection and hours online and accepting donations rather than charging. The underground eatery took off, and the pair got food blog profiles, an interview with the LA Weekly and gushing reviews on Yelp -- one patron stated that "It's like eating sunshine and rainbows and pure happiness."

Eventually, word of mouth was too much of a good thing, and their home business got shut down by the health inspector for not having a commercial kitchen.

The new Watercourt location, across from Casa, was a fortuitous find. Friends ran the eatery that had previously occupied the space, and they offered to partner with the Trans on turning their home-venture into a full-blown restaurant. Only minimal new build-out was needed, so the process to get open was a quick one.

Opening day came last Tuesday, and today an email blast to tenants in Maguire's neighboring office led to longer lines and to running out of some menu items. "We're newbies," says Nguyen with a smile and an apology. Even today, though, they managed to keep the crowd moving.

Asked how much social media plays a role in their business, Nguyen said emphatically ".. about 95%.. almost all of it." Facebook especially allows them to interact with their customers, providing an immediate feedback and is the "central destination" for all things Starry Kitchen, more than their website, blog or Twitter.

The eatery also offers catering, and Nguyen suggests calling to discuss timing and menu.

The pair haven't set a date, but would eventually like to open a second location in North Hollywood. In the meantime, though, one can't help but feel the passion and energy that the Trans have put into their new Downtown spot. "I want to disrupt the norm," Nguyen says.

Starry Kitchen / 350 S. Grand Ave / 213-617-3474 / facebook.com/starrykitchen / @starrykitchen / Monday - Friday: 11am - 3pm

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