A decade ago, Nguyen Tran ran a small private company producing independent films, while his wife Thi Tran worked in advertising. When the economy crashed in 2008, Nguyen's projects began to run dry and Thi lost her job the following year. Out of desperation, they started an illegal underground restaurant in their North Hollywood apartment. They called it "Starry Kitchen," named after Thi's favorite Cantonese cooking show from Hong Kong.
Eight years and many iterations later, the underground restaurant no longer exists. But Starry Kitchen won a nationwide following, with reverent write-ups in national newspapers and food magazines. And Nguyen and Thi have captured the story and recipes in a new memoir and cookbook, "Adventures in Starry Kitchen: 88 Asian-Inspired Recipes From America's Most Famous Underground Restaurant."
"Asian-inspired" is a broad umbrella. The cookbook includes recipes for Korean spicy noodles, and also chicken fried steak.
The Trans grew up in Dallas, Texas; both children of Asian immigrant parents. Nguyen grew up eating hamburgers and hot dogs, not interested in his parents' Vietnamese cooking traditions. But his first visit to Vietnam at the age of 18 sparked his curiosity about Asian food. Still, his parents didn't expect him to enter the restaurant business and cook dishes inspired by their cuisine.
"They're very thankful I came around, because I rejected it for so long that they gave up on me," Nguyen explains. "The other side of it is that they're slightly mortified, because I grew up with them managing 7-11s for three or four decades. And my mom literally told me when I opened a restaurant, 'I'm sorry to see what you're going through, but I'm glad you understand it now.'"
Thi's parents — a seamstress and a carpenter from Vietnam of Cantonese descent — were even more surprised. "She was forbidden to touch any of that stuff and also to go in the kitchen," Ngyuen says. Thi only started cooking in college, because she missed her mom's dishes.
Today the Tran home includes two dogs and a one-year-old son, with a garage full of kitchen equipment that can easily be set up to serve hundreds (though they no longer regularly do so at home). They invited us over to make some of their most popular recipes, including the deceptively simple-sounding dish that made them famous: Crispy Tofu Balls.
Why tofu balls?
"Your question is the exact reason why," says Nguyen. "Because no one expects it to be. And because it's fun, and it's green and it's crunchy."
At the restaurant, the whole process takes four days. The book provides shortcuts for the home cook.
First comes tofu, pressed overnight to squeeze out the water. It goes into a food mill and ground to a creamy paste. Then, the pressed tofu is mixed with scallions, corn, mushroom boullion and white pepper.
At this point the mixture has a texture similar to egg salad. They roll the tofu into balls, dip them in a flour and water mixture, then coat them in crispy green rice. Then into hot oil they go. They are served with a final squirt of sriracha aioli.
Thi estimates that between the underground restaurant, pop-ups, festivals, and their current restaurant, "Button Mash," they've churned out more than a million tofu balls over the last eight years. Now when her friends ask her to make some, she tells them, "Why don't you read the book and press the tofu?"
Nguyen says he must have eaten over a thousand tofu balls since they started making them, but he never gets sick of them. The key is moderation. "I would love to eat them all the time, but you can't get too addicted to something and hate it eventually," he says.
But the two chefs make other dishes that are just as good. He proves his point by serving us an elaborate bowl of Sinagporean chili crab with beer buttermilk beignets to sop up the spicy sauce.
With stories about run-ins with the health department, near bankruptcy, and other misadventures, "Adventures in Starry Kitchen" makes clear that this journey has been a challenging one for the Tran family. As is often the case with restaurateurs, national acclaim has not brought financial comfort.
"I'm now coming to a different state of adulthood. I have a child, and I want my child to understand how to cope with those kind of feelings and failure, and to learn [from it]", Nguyen explains. "We were broke like two weeks ago and my wife and I were still questioning, even amidst all of the success and PR. It still vacillates between success and drowning in failure, and it's not easy."
Still, Nguyen says, making food is not about making money. "We could honestly do other things," he says. "If we are going to do it, we have to be happy with it, number one, and number two, we have to try to do something that is nothing like anything else we've eaten." And with that, we bite into the crunchy, creamy, sriracha-aioli-covered tofu balls.