Menuism Dining Blog
Dining education for foodies

Nguyen and Thi Tran of Starry Kitchen

Meet Thi and Nguyen Tran, aka “Team SK,” the husband-and-wife team responsible for Starry Kitchen in downtown Los Angeles. They’re super fun, super friendly and super talented at churning out creative, affordable, pan-Asian cuisine that’s earned a cult following since the Trans first launched their venture as an illegal underground restaurant-in-an-apartment. In early 2010, they moved into a commercial restaurant space, and the rest–well, you can read some of it here–and you can catch the rest by following Team SK on Twitter @starrykitchen.

Do you ever cook together?

Nguyen: We used to a lot back at home. Thi’s still the talent in the kitchen, but before we started Starry Kitchen we used to complement each other. She’s the cook and I’m the baker of the two. She likes to improvise and hates recipes, and I cook better with precision and recipes (which, funny enough, is the complete opposite of how we are socially!)  Now that we work so much we actually eat out a lot, but that’s partially to meet and introduce ourselves to the community, too–and partially ’cause it’s just fun to discover new food! It’s pretty fun working in food…most times! 🙂

Nyugen, what’s the best dish Thi makes?

Pineapple chicken wing soup and Malaysian coconut chicken wings…OMFFFFFG, I love those dishes like they were my own children (FYI: we have no children yet, so these dishes will have to suffice until then). Oh yeah, I’m adding the claypot caramelized catfish and pork belly to that list, too (if you’ve checked out our Test Kitchen menu, you’ll notice these are on there!) That’s actually my favorite dish of all time! To put it into perspective, if I had to have a last meal, that would be my last meal (with a nice bowl of steamed white rice, of course).

Where are some of your favorite places to eat in LA?

99.99 percent of the time we eat together, so this is a combined list: Wako Donkasu, Daichan, Santouka Ramen, Newport Seafood, Café Columbia, So Kong Dong, Park’s BBQ, Langer’s, Fisherman’s Outlet, Honey’s Kettle Fried Chicken, Chego, Umami Burger and Thailand Plaza.

Tell us about your menu.

It’s all pan-Asian comfort food (Malaysian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese… whatever we feel like), but we never have consistent menu items except for the lemongrass chicken. We actually tell people it’s the most boring dish on the menu since it’s the “safe” dish, or the “gateway” dish.

Nguyen’s analogy for why we put it on there: I love all my children…I just love some of them more than others! Part of it is to keep us creatively interested, but the other part is that we found through our illegal, underground apartment experiment that the routine for people is not always that one dish. Sometimes the routine is actually trusting the restaurant/chef with their food and recommendations—we rotated the menu at our apartment too!

How often do you rotate menu items?

Every week, but we stagger it so only one item leaves or comes in. It keeps people (including us) on their toes, and people kind of have fun with it now too (rather than complain about that one dish they wish they had more of). We have about four to five slots for dishes, so most items stay on the menu for about three weeks before *POOF* it goes away 🙂

Thi, what’s your favorite dish on Starry Kitchen’s menu?

Double-fried sweet ginger glazed chicken wings.

Where do you get inspiration for new dishes?

I get inspiration from new dishes from eating out or watching TV.

Speaking of new dishes, Thi, you recently became the first woman to guest chef at Test Kitchen in LA. We’ve heard great things (especially here, here and here) about the 8-course meal you served. Tell us about your experience.

My experience at Test Kitchen was great. I learned so much, from working in a kitchen with gas (we’re all electric at SK) to communicating and expediting with the front of house. It was really fun. As far as dishes making it to Starry Kitchen, you will soon find out. I can tell you I can bring some, but not all, since we are all electric at Starry Kitchen.

You started out doing lunch, but recently opened your doors for dinner. How’s that been?

We were really lucky when we started out because there’s an awesome and free concert series organized in our complex, called the Grand Performances. It’s been around for about 25 years, and they put on some great shows that bring thousands of people to our complex so it made sense for us to start opening for dinner then. The concerts have since ended and now’s the true test.

It’s definitely slower paced than our frantic lunch rush, and we’re in a part of town people are a little bit scared of (downtown LA = crappy parking) but it’s slowly growing. We’re hoping that with our neighbors (Casa Downtown) we can build more traffic to make the area more of a dining destination. We’ll see. If there’s a shorter summary: lunch we’ve been really lucky with; dinner feels like the true test of our potential growth (if not just a fun challenge).

You both had very different careers before starting Starry Kitchen. What’s been the most unexpected benefit of changing vocations?

Nguyen: I’d say being able to work with my wife and see her almost all day. I used to work in film and sometimes I would travel or go out weeks at a time and not see her that often. So seeing her all the time’s pretty awesome…oh yeah, and being able to eat on a whim together ain’t so bad, either!

Thi: I’d say to be able to spend quality time with my husband. We are attached to each other like super glue. LOL. Seriously, that is definitely a plus to get to work with my husband. I love spending time with him and before we didn’t see each other all the time.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

We have absolutely no previous restaurant experience, so learning how to run, optimize and adjust [our business] has been a bit of a learning curve. That, and dealing with the true operational cost to run your own brick-and-mortar is a bit daunting as well. That’s not to say we weren’t willing to work hard and learn though, and we’ve adjusted pretty well. The rotating menu actually adds a very high learning curve as well. Most restaurants, they keep the same menu day in and day out, so it’s easy to order, prep, plan and research better pricing. We don’t, so that really kept us up at night for a while, but now this is our routine and we’re getting kinda good at it (i.e., we’re not leaving the restaurant close to midnight every night anymore!).

You started Starry Kitchen as an underground restaurant out of your North Hollywood apartment in 2009 and made it official by moving into a commercial space in February. Congratulations on your success! There are rumors of a second restaurant in the works. Care to comment?

Yes, please! LOL. We’ll see. We are keen on trying to expand, but also trying different things that we can’t in our current location. Crossing our fingers that we can figure something out soon! (And hoping people like us enough to have us in their neighborhoods!)

Since the beginning, it seems like a lot of Starry Kitchen’s success has been due to word-of-mouth from contented diners. How do you keep your customers so happy (besides serving up delicious food, of course)?

Part of it might be trying to manage/lower people’s expectations when they come in. We’ve all been in that place where we’ve heard about a restaurant, product or film that was so hyped up that we went in with the mindset of “this better be good!” And if that expectation’s too high, we can never meet it and therefore [we risk] having people leaving not so happy (it’s happened, we promise!).

That, and maybe we try to have a lot of fun at the restaurant, too. I mean, it’s not like “flair” or anything like that, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously because it’s ultimately just food (plus, we’re not asking for $50 a plate either!).  We try to build a culture that’s complimentary to our food…’cause don’t we all like to go “where everybody knows your name?” (Disclaimer: we don’t know everyone’s name, but we do recognize regulars, repeats and make sure they feel welcome !)

And maybe ’cause we do just ‘fess up when we f up. It happens. It’s easier to just admit it, fix it and move on. We dunno really, but it’s gotta be a combination of all of that stuff. It’s gotta be! (Or it could be “crack” as many people have predicted…but no crack, msg or similar here…that we know of at least!)

You’re super active on Facebook and Twitter with Starry Kitchen news and menu updates. How important has social media been in promoting your business? What tips would you give other restaurateurs?

It’s probably the most important factor. And actually, while all the food trucks built their business on Twitter, we’ve been predominantly dependent on Facebook actually (up until now, since the Twitter following has now surpassed the Facebook fans!)  For those who are interested (and can tolerate my nearly incessant updates, LOL), we give a glimpse into what we’re doing, how the restaurant’s faring, what we’re eating, what we’re f’ing up, and oh yeah—food porn, too! That helps the most. Talk’s cheap, food porn’s worth a thousand clicks and eventually [translates into] people showing up.

As far as tips are concerned, don’t do it unless you’re really dedicated to learning it and then keeping it up. It takes a lot more time than most people would know. There’s no point in updating a Facebook or Twitter account once a month. I personally don’t think just “deal updates” is enough, either. There has to be a sort of voice, unless you just offer super awesome secret deals every day. Oh yeah, and if you’re very defensive don’t do it, either. While social media’s “free” and “the next wave,” it’s not worth it to make yourself look like an ass. When and if you do make yourself look like an ass, it’s all out there for everyone to see if they want to share, re-tweet, or blog about it (don’t forget Google caches, too!).

What’s next for you?

New recipes, more fun and unique events and hopefully expansion! We’re having fun so far, so why not? Plus it would be awesome to grow this into something that really flourishes because frankly, running a restaurant is too hard just for fun. It is fun, but without the passion, drive or motivation, I wouldn’t recommend it because it is not for the faint of heart. So again, we’re crossing our fingers and hoping we can grow this mofo!

Posted by on October 15th, 2010

Nikki Jong is an earth-friendly eater who’s never met a vegetable she didn’t adore. In addition to her edible plant obsession, she nurses a neverending hankering for sustainable seafood and is a champion oyster eater (and shucker). Nikki loves hoppy beers, bold, spicy reds, and believes that nothing beats a cold glass of moscato d’Asti on a hot summer afternoon. As Editor of The Menuism Blog, she has the pleasure of interviewing some of the hungriest, thirstiest and most ambitious folks in food and wine.

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