Yesterday afternoon, Bill Poon and I were led by our friend Nguyen Tran to a new Cambodian spot tucked behind a Vietnamese supermarket in Chinatown. You have to access the location (which has been a black widow for restauranteurs) through a hidden parking lot but the food is really cheap and good! For $6.50, you get a big tasty entree and a decent-sized bowl of broth with a massive bone sticking out of it. Nguyen states that type of soup has been all the rage in the food blogging world for the last couple of weeks and then Bill says he hates it when foodie culture rips off O.G. Asian cuisine. Nguyen, who is known for being a wildman who wears a banana suit and belts out Lionel Richie songs while he’s working, belongs to either world of eating and is a softie when it comes to anyone who dares to serve food for money. He simply says that Golden Lake Eatery has survived for three months and hopefully will last much longer. Such humble dives are the actual places where serious chefs go to eat, and not the trendy eateries.
Of course, Nguyen and his wife Thi are both underdogs and culinary superstars. And they’re in the midst of a $500,000 Kickstarter campaign to relaunch the Starry Kitchen restaurant that they famously started illegally out of their Valley apartment. Their business has moved from one pop-up location to another, confusing and losing (yet gaining) fans with every step, and now they are creating a “real” restaurant with help from customers, supporters, and friends. He admits that it’s a huge amount of money to crowdsource. And it would be more sensible to take money from an investor, not have to deliver premiums to backers, and maybe not even have to pay back the money if they fail. But Starry Kitchen’s story is one plotted by passion rather than business plans, love instead of logic. They use The Force.
So for the last couple of weeks, Thi and Nguyen has been working the restaurant as usual and pushing the campaign at night and during off days. I love that his latest update doesn’t stress the awesome dishes that everyone will miss but brings up how past employees, closet chefs, and food lovers of all kinds have been inspired by Starry Kitchen’s soulful story and unstoppable desire to follow their dreams. They nourish spirits and the city as a whole, and not just stomachs. Nguyen also participated in a Reddit marathon that was more intimidating to him than being interviewed by writers from the away team, like The New York Times, but turned out to be full of supporters.
There is no Plan B. Nguyen and Thi fully count on reaching their goal and starting their dream restaurant. And when anyone brings up reasons why they will fail (too much money to raise, not enough manpower behind the campaign) he turns them around just like he does negative Yelp! reviews (it’s not money but awareness, they are the truest champions of their own cause). I am convinced, and can’t wait to eat at their next location in Chinatown. I hope they bring back the tofu ball banh mi, too, because ordering them to-go for Dodger games is one of my all-time favorite combinations.
Please check out Starry Kitchen’s Kickstarter page. For my practical and budget minded friends, donating in $20 increments will get you $30 of credit at the new restaurant. When they reach their goal, it will be like paying for a Groupon except that the kitchen actually benefits instead of getting ripped off. And if for some ungodly reason Nguyen and Thi don’t succeed, you and your stomach will be terribly sad but won’t be charged and will lose nothing.
Although Nguyen likes to belt out Lionel Richie songs, the way he and his wife operate is punk rock. I totally love their food, support their DIY attitude, and want their story to continue. So does Jonathan Gold, I’m sure. Maybe you will, too.