Having the number one reviewed Asian restaurant in LA on Yelp is pretty amazing in and of itself, but doing it from your 2 bedroom North Hollywood apartment? Impossible. And yet that’s exactly what happened to Nguyen and Thi Tran in 2010, prompting a curious and congratulatory call from Yelp HQ in San Francisco to confirm that the venue was, in fact, their home.
Starry Kitchen took the LA dining scene by storm and haven’t looked back, eventually opening a small (and legal) restaurant in California Plaza in the heart of Downtown, along with unique pop-ups and other events around town. Nguyen explains that many ethnic restaurants get their start in people’s homes, and remembers going to family friends’ backyard Vietnamese “restaurants” back home in Texas. The big difference is that Starry Kitchen catered to everyone and not just the local immigrant community, providing a unique experience that fans still miss even as they rave about the fried tofu balls at the new location.
Starry Kitchen does Asian cuisine anchored by Vietnamese techniques and ingredients, but Nguyen embraces the taco lifestyle to the fullest; Instead of just emailing us his favorite LA tacos, he invited us on a taco mission to two of his current favorite spots. Up first was Romero’s, the venerable 23-year old K-town Mexican joint where the owner and his wife still work the counter and grill. Nguyen loves this spot because the carnitas are how he likes them– motherfuckin’ crispy. The proximity to his favorite bar, the Beer Belly, doesn’t hurt either.
Stop #2 was a stand at the corner of Soto and Alcazar named “La Guera”, where Nguyen and the Taco crew got down on some lengua, carne asada, suadero con chorizo, and tripas tacos, most topped by significant quantities of a fiery chile del arbol based salsa. Between bites, Nguyen and the taquero talked shop about the restaurant biz and the hustle needed to make it in difficult economic times. Ant egg tacos, which Nguyen sourced and served in a collaboration with Laurent Quenioux earlier this year did not come up in the conversation, but there’s always next time. Meanwhile, La Guera did steady business of families who pulled up in their cars or walked from the nearby hospital as the low rumbles of the nearby freeway could be heard in the distance. Biting into a fifth helping of tacos, and looking around at the smoke filled air and crowd of smiling customers waiting patiently to order, Nguyen was heard to exclaim, “I fucking love this!” Everyone around seemed to nod in agreement.
All Photos by Erwin Recinos.