Starry Kitchen Cookbook: The Rocky Journey Of A Famed Underground Restaurant

Aug 25, 2017
Originally published on August 25, 2017 9:47 pm

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.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

I'm Ari Shapiro in a residential neighborhood just outside of Los Angeles, where we are on our way to meet the masterminds behind "Starry Kitchen." What is "Starry Kitchen"?

NGUYEN TRAN: It's my wife's favorite cooking show from Hong Kong.

THI TRAN: It was just a Hong Kong cooking show. And they bring different, like, celebrities on and then - you know, I guess that's why they call it "Starry Kitchen" - like, stars, you know?

N. TRAN: Oh, I never thought about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STARRY KITCHEN")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: After the economy crashed in 2008, Nguyen Tran and his wife, Thi, opened a secret, illegal restaurant in their apartment. And they called it Starry Kitchen, named after their favorite Cantonese cooking show. Their restaurant won a national following, with glowing write-ups in major newspapers and food magazines.

And now they are the chefs, business owners and authors behind a sort of memoir cookbook. It's called "Adventures In Starry Kitchen: 88 Asian-inspired Recipes From America's Most Famous Underground Restaurant." Asian-inspired is a wide umbrella. They put an irreverent spin on recipes from spicy Korean noodles to chicken-fried steak.

N. TRAN: But it's right next to the Japanese curry, which I thought would be really good. So that would make it Asian. I mean look; we're American, and you know the thing that I really respect from a lot of chefs and cooks we've met is that you can only draw from what you know. And we grew up in Texas.

SHAPIRO: So you grew up eating hamburgers and hot dogs. How do your parents feel about the fact that now you're making Asian food and, you know, creating these dishes that are if not what they grew up eating, at least kind of an homage to it?

N. TRAN: There are two answers to that. One is, they're very thankful that I came around 'cause I rejected it for so long that they gave up on me. And the other side of it is that they are also slightly mortified because I grew up with them managing 7-Elevens for three or four decades. And my mom literally told me when I opened a restaurant, I'm sorry to see you're going through it, but I'm glad to see that you understand now.

SHAPIRO: So on the one hand, they must be thrilled that you are known for something that is yours and you've created your own company that is successful and popular. And on the other hand, you're working six, seven days a week. You're in the kitchen. (Laughter) They must be a little bit conflicted.

N. TRAN: They're very conflicted because we still deal with it day to day. Even now, like, we were broke, like, two weeks ago. And me and my wife were still questioning even amidst all of the success and the PR and publicity. It still vacillates between success and, like, drowning in failure. It's not easy.

SHAPIRO: Nguyen and Thi Tran no longer operate illegally out of their house. They now have two dogs and a 1-year-old son who you can hear in the background.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Cooing).

SHAPIRO: 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.

When you think of the signature dish of a popular restaurant, I don't think that tofu balls would be sort of the obvious go-to. Why tofu balls?

N. TRAN: For the very reason and the tone of your voice and the slight amount of condescension...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

N. TRAN: No, no, but that's - no, but that - your question is the exact reason why it is - because no one expects it to be and because it's fun, and it's green, and it's crunchy.

SHAPIRO: At their current restaurant, Button Mash, the whole process takes four days. The cookbook gives you some shortcuts to do it at home. First comes tofu pressed overnight to squeeze out the water. It goes into a food mill where it gets ground into a creamy paste.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Laughter).

N. TRAN: I, too, think grinding tofu is very funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD MILLING)

N. TRAN: Looks like spaghetti or something.

SHAPIRO: Wow, yeah.

N. TRAN: Or, like - it looks like ground meat - is what it really looks like.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. So we're mixing together the pressed tofu which has been ground up, the scallions, the corn and the mushroom bullion...

N. TRAN: And the two pinches of white pepper...

SHAPIRO: ...And pinches of white paper.

N. TRAN: ...Which I still have. So I'm going to throw it in. Yeah, we're going to roll these, actually. That's what I'm going to do.

SHAPIRO: Let's roll.

Thi joins us to roll the tofu into balls, dip them into a flour and water mixture, then coat them in crispy, green rice. She estimates that between the restaurant pop-ups and festivals, 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 has the perfect answer.

T. TRAN: Recently my friend was like, hey, can you make me balls? I was like, yeah. Why don't you read a book and...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Make it yourself.

T. TRAN: ...Press the tofu. She's like, how do you press the tofu? I was like, you need to read the instructions.

(LAUGHTER)

T. TRAN: I was like, I'll make new stuff. I don't want to make the same stuff over and over.

SHAPIRO: Do you know how many you personally have eaten?

N. TRAN: No, but maybe - I don't know, maybe like a thousand or 2,000 tofu balls.

SHAPIRO: I guess what I'm wondering is, is this food that the world is enchanted by now something that you've eaten so much of and cooked so many of that you would prefer to never see another one again?

N. TRAN: No. That's absolutely not true. I would love to see them and eat them all the time. We've come to the point in our career where, like - Gloria Gaynor will now sing "I Will Survive," and she's fine with it...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL SURVIVE")

GLORIA GAYNOR: (Singing) I will survive. Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I'll stay alive.

N. TRAN: ...Where you can sing it and be like, you know what? I get paid for this, and that is great - not the, I'm not a one trick pony. We were that, like, two years in - like, we're like, come on. We make other stuff that's just as good.

SHAPIRO: And now you've owned your destiny that you will forever be associated with tofu balls.

N. TRAN: Correct.

SHAPIRO: I can vouch that they do make other things that are just as good. During our afternoon together, we also made Singapore chili crab with beer buttermilk beignets to sop up the spicy sauce. The recipes are in the cookbook. They're involved but worth a try - anyway, back to the tofu balls. After a dip in the fryer, he squirts on some Sriracha mayonnaise. They're pink and green, crunchy and creamy.

The thing that I keep coming back to is, it's not hard to find delicious food, but it's hard to find delicious food that's unlike anything you've ever eaten anywhere else. And this is totally unlike any food I've ever had. And it's also delicious.

N. TRAN: I'm like, we eat a lot of food, right? Why would we go out there and make food to make money? We could honestly do other things. If we're going to do it, we've got to be happy with it, number one. Number two, we've got to try to make something that's nothing like anything else we've eaten. And this is our attempt to do that.

SHAPIRO: Nguyen Tran and Thi Tran, thank you for re-creating "Starry Kitchen" for a day here in your own kitchen. This has been really fun.

N. TRAN: Thank you so much for having us.

T. TRAN: Yes, same here. Now go wash the dishes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: The book is "Adventures In Starry Kitchen: 88 Asian-inspired Recipes From America's Most Famous Underground Restaurant."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.