Food Daily Dish

Starry Kitchen's Nguyen Tran aims to relaunch lunch with a van, a cooler and crispy tofu balls

Here’s an L.A. version of guerrilla catering: an energetic chef who speaks with profanity-laced enthusiasm, a park bench, a cooler full of noodles and curry, and fans fast enough on Facebook to snatch up limited tickets.

It played out at noon Wednesday at Angels Knoll, where Starry Kitchen's Nguyen Tran handed out containers of Malaysian chicken curry with garlic noodles, Vietnamese minced beef, and crispy tofu balls to a few dozen followers who had placed online orders ($9 plus a $1.49 service fee).

The idea was to sell 60 lunches, but early in the week, Tran panicked and stopped selling tickets halfway through. Even a guy who thrives under pressure knows that a minivan, a home kitchen and a hot box are not enough to feed more than a few dozen people.

But this is how Tran and his chef-wife, Thi, operate.

"Sometimes I think I’m not that crazy, and other times I realize that I’m crazier than think I am," he said with a little profanity thrown in here and there.

In the late morning, they loaded up the minivan with the components of the lunches in a hot box. The lunches couldn’t be boxed in Van Nuys because they would have grown cold by the time the Trans reached downtown L.A.

"I am doing this not necessarily as a business model," Tran said. "It’s more of a transitional period for us."

The couple started Starry Kitchen as an occasional pop-up in the courtyard of their North Hollywood apartment in 2009. After being shut down by the county health department, they went legit with a lunch spot in Bunker Hill's California Plaza. They decided to close last summer, and opened Starry Kitchen Nights as a dinner pop-up at Tiara Cafe in the fashion district downtown. 

Tran is considering another lunch spot downtown, and he's wondering if a delivery service should be a big part of it. For instance, would a person in Bunker Hill craving crispy ginger chicken wings really drive to the arts district for lunch? Maybe not, but delivery? And that's how the Angels Knoll experiment came to be, unformed but still a spark.

Once on the road, panic set in (again). Those lunches had to be assembled before reaching the park. The Trans parked the van on a random street in South L.A. and started boxing the orders in the middle of the road.

"A lot of things come out of necessity. I’m not trying to be cool," Tran said.

They made it to the park on time with Tran lugging the big cooler to a bench. From there, everything went smoothly.

It is a way of working that shouldn’t work. Will things be this chaotic and disorganized in two weeks when they offer their guerrilla catering again?

"Believe me, there’s a lot of reasoning behind what we're doing," Tran said. "I analyze everything. It’s not just to ... ." (No, no, we can’t publish that.)

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