SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
Part bar, part arcade, Button Mash is a nostalgic gamer’s dream come true. The Echo Park bar and arcade has become a hot spot for 20-somethings searching for something different than your regular bar on the busy Sunset Boulevard. With a number of available craft beers, a selection of vintage arcade games, and mouth-watering dishes being cooked up by Chef Nguyen Tran’s Starry Kitchen, it has the makings of the perfect night out.
However what diners and fans of Starry Kitchen do not know is Chef Tran’s unconventional path to food stardom. For anyone who has ever met the jovial chef and cookbook author, it doesn’t take a long conversation to realize his passion for food and that reflects in his love for cooking. Unlike most chefs, Chef Tran did not find his path to launching Starry Kitchen on purpose, it kind of happened by chance and all began with an illegal and underground restaurant started with his wife in his apartment.
Growing up, Tran swore off working in a kitchen, as he recalls his older and wiser friends who spent all day cooking and it “scared the hell out of him.” Instead, he spent his professional career in the entertainment industry as a producer, producer’s rep, and sales agent of independent films, attending fancy film festivals all across the world. He began working almost exclusively with Asian-American filmmakers to help get their voice heard by masses. While he didn’t expect the next transition to be food, the idea came to fruition as the Vietnamese chef became immersed in the world of cinema and exploring new cultures.
It was a trip to Vietnam when he was 18-years-old when everything changed. Tran discovered a new appreciation for Vietnamese food, the type of food he shied away from as a youth growing up in North Dallas. Fast forward to May 2009 where Tran is still working away in the entertainment industry when his wife becomes unemployed due to the economic crash that began in 2008. It was then where the makings of Starry Kitchen would begin.
After photos of his wife’s home-cooked meals gained the attention and admiration of friends on Facebook, Tran eventually convinced her to start hosting dinner parties inside their apartment. A few days later they came up with a menu that would change every week and word spread. Between passing out flyers to 300 apartments, texting their friends, starting a Twitter account, and blasting the dinners on Facebook, the buzz around Starry Kitchen was growing.
Though success was immediate, the illegal and underground “restaurant” had its high and lows. From running out of fridge space to dealing with the health department, Chef Tran and his wife definitely had their work cut out for them. In spite, their dinners brought people from all walks of life together and fostered a community that shared an interest in food, hosting anywhere from 10 to 30 people at their apartment complex at any given time.
After eventually going through the formalities to open a few restaurants and pop-up locations, it wouldn’t be until Tran received a seven-page email from a fan that he jumped at the chance to open a bar arcade with a restaurant. Starry Kitchen filled the bar arcade market void that lacked good food, offering “greatest hits” like crispy tofu balls and garlic noodles.
You can learn more about Chef Tran’s recipes in his book “Adventures in Starry Kitchen: 88 Asian-Inspired Recipes from America’s Most Famous Underground Restaurant” and catch him on the Food Network’s “Big Bargain Eats.”
Header image courtesy of Button Mash.