An intriguing twist on the increasingly popular Asian fusion cuisine, which ranges from Singaporean chili crab to Malaysian chicken curry, can be found at a “permanent pop-up” restaurant in Downtown L.A.
Since closing its Cal Plaza doors, Starry Kitchen appeared once again last August, this time at Tiara Cafe on Ninth Street. One of the key differences is that the new location, called Starry Kitchen Nights, serves up family-style portions of bold Asian fusion flavors.
Though the location is a bit sketchy at night because of its pocketed Downtown location, once inside, one is transported to a laid-back atmosphere where the service is friendly, to say the least.
The paper menu is witty, with captions under select items that have a voice of their own. Upon meeting the owner, one might recognize the voice behind the eccentric quotations. Quirky captions such as “(WARNING: This dish is VERY Asian+ALMOST tastes like Asia itself ;D)” are sprinkled throughout the menu under dishes like the Niman Ranch ribeye beef satay noodles with dried shrimp.
Another entertaining element that makes for a complete dining experience at Starry Kitchen Nights is the amicable owner, Nguyen Tran. Outgoing and humorous, he chats with diners at length out of sheer friendliness.
During our interaction, Tran cracked jokes and explained that he and his wife, head chef Thi, started the Starry Kitchen concept after shutting down an early incarnation of the restaurant, a private kitchen run without a permit.
The husband-wife duo has since shuttered the doors of the original brick-and-mortar Starry Kitchen in pursuit of doing something new.
“I get bored easily,” says Tran.
Good personality and good food have led to coverage in many publications, but the couple stays humble as their main focus is food and changing up the menu to constantly offer creative, new items.
If you decide to try this pop-up for yourself, here’s a tip: Since many people come from afar just to order the Singaporean chili crab, reserve your crab(s) when you make your reservation. They might be costly — they come at market price — but they’re the most popular item on the menu for a reason.
“People have actually gotten mad at me for running out of the crab,” says Tran.
The crispy tofu balls are an appetizer that has deservedly remained on the repertoire from the previous Starry Kitchen menu. The deep-fried crunchy spheres have a crisped rice coating and come with a zesty sriracha aioli.
The sweet ginger chicken “WAAAAAAAAANGS” (yes, customers are encouraged to order it that way) are double-fried for the perfect crunch, coated with a sweet and sticky glaze and studded with a sprinkle of black and white sesame seeds.
The pandan chicken consists of chicken wrapped and fried in a pandan leaf so the flavors infuse the bird. The pandan flavor can best be described as a nutty vanilla.
As for entrées, the fall-off-the-bone Malaysian chicken curry with purple Okinawan sweet potatoes and boldly flavored gravy complement the accompanying B1 Breadshop bread, which is used to sop up the spicy goodness. Those averse to heavy spices and dishes with heat might want to request a less spicy version, as the default preparation is not for the faint of heart.
The green curry tofu arrives in triangular pieces fried with a thin layer batter on the outside and tofu with custard-like consistency on the inside, served in a deceptively spicy light green sauce. More Okinawan potatoes and the light crunch of carrots add sweetness and texture to round out the flavors of this complex vegetarian dish.
For garlic lovers, the Japanese garlic noodles present major flavor reinforcement by building layers of garlicky flavor using whole cloves of confit garlic and garlic oil.
The claypot caramelized striped bass and pancetta can be considered an Asian variation on surf and turf, with the savory sauce at the bottom of the clay pot unifying the two proteins.
Even if one’s stomach has reached its full capacity, it would be a shame not to order dessert.
The salted plum lychee panna cotta is balanced between the salted plum topping and the delicately sweet lychee-flavored interior. The osmanthus panna cotta with red wine poached pears has subtler floral flavors, but is equally refreshing. The pillow-like five-spice apple fritters contain sour apple pieces sprinkled throughout, which go well with the sweet honey bourbon cream sauce, although the dip could use a bit more bourbon.
Even though you might be extremely full before dessert is even served, it is likely that you will have no problems finishing every last crumb and dollop on the dessert plate.
Starry Kitchen Nights is a must-try for anyone looking for an exotic adventure for the taste buds right in Downtown L.A. Much to the delight of its increasingly large fan base, what began as a pop-up will stay in operation indefinitely.
Starry Kitchen Nights is open Tuesday – Saturday from 5 p.m. – 10 p.m.