I usually don’t take very kindly to being charged over $4.50 for a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich. I’m Vietnamese, you see, and if there’s one thing I learned from the pink bagfuls of banh mi sandwiches that my mom brought home every week or so it’s this: if you’re paying more than $4.50 for one, it must be special.
Well, Starry Kitchen is that special.
Starry Kitchen is a little Vietnamese fusion (in the best sense of the word) eatery across from Casa downtown in California Plaza. Like all great places, they started in their apartment kitchen; like all great comebacks, they had to go underground for a bit (the state got wise to their game) before they could rise again, this time with an actual restaurant space and official-looking Department stamps of approval and licenses and whatnot. Thi Tran is the chef-turned-Kitchen Ninja, who mashes the foods of my childhood with the foods of my adulthood: banh mi stuffed with Malaysian chicken curry; tofu balls that are Kermit the Frog green because of the tofu is rolled in celadon-shade Vietnamese glutinous rice and deep fried to deliciousness; lemongrass chicken that is pure home-style Viet. Nguyen Tran is the trusty host who greets you at the counter and explains the menu to you: choose a protein from their weekly rotating menu; choose a vessel in which to put said protein (banh mi, wrap, or salad – I’m partial to the banh mi); and, if you like, add a side or two or three (when those crispy kimchi cakes go back on the menu – order them). Then he rings you up, sends you on your way, then comes around to tell you excitedly about something else on the menu that you must try the next time you come in, because 1) it is really good; and 2) there will be a next time.
A little bit more about Starry Kitchen, including details on the dinner service, after the jump!
Nguyen is wary about setting expectations too high (too late!), but just to bring the stars down to earth a little bit, Starry Kitchen isn’t looking to be the most amazing meal you’ve ever eaten. That’s reserved for the likes of Ludo and Keller and Goin. No, they’re just trying to give you a very good meal for around $10. If you stick to the mains, you should more than satisfied (some of the sides are clearly better than others; if you ask him, Nguyen will point you in the right direction). The best part of all the whole operation is that these people really, really like doing this. It shouldn’t be such a rarity, but it really is. How do you know? If they’ve had a particularly good day of service the day before, then the drinks are on them. They’ll sing praises about their own dishes the way your dining companion would insist you try their dish, because it’s good and you should try good things. I’ve heard Nguyen say over and over again that if you don’t like a particular dish, that’s totally fine – they make food they would eat, so whatever you don’t, they will. No harm, no foul.
Starry Kitchen only was serving weekday lunches, which was a total bummer for people like me who aren’t always downtown during the week. Happily, they begin dinner service tomorrow from 6pm to 9pm; after that, dinner will be served weekly on Thursdays and Fridays. This comes just in time for Grand Performances, which kicks off this summer season with Cornerstone Theater’s “3 Truths” on June 5. Pick up a banh mi and watch the show under the stars. This is LA.
Starry Kitchen is located at California Plaza, 350 S. Grand Avenue in Downtown. They DO validate at the outrageously expensive garage if you get there before 7:00pm; enter on Olive between 3rd and 4th. Lunch is 11am-3pm and dinners will be on Thursdays and Fridays, 6pm-9pm.