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Counter Intelligence: Starry Kitchen breaks hearts with cult dish

RestaurantsDining and DrinkingLifestyle and LeisureAntonio Villaraigosa

Are you a connoisseur of agony? Then drop by Starry Kitchen for a bite some evening, somewhere around 9 p.m. if you can swing it, and listen to the customers who have been denied a shot at the Singaporean chili crab. They will be muttering imprecations when they think the staff is out of listening range, grinding teeth, staring up at the glittering pastels of the high ceiling as if they expect a unicorn to flutter down from the rafters with a sackful of British Columbia's finest culinary export.

Nguyen Tran, who runs the pan-Asian restaurant with his chef-wife, Thi, feels the pain, really he does, dashing between tables, listening to the howls of disgruntled patrons, many of whom have driven from as far as San Diego or Ventura for a shot at the crab, which is a cult item rarely available outside its southeast Asian home.

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Sometimes he offers them a taste of the crab sauce spooned over rice. This generally does not help. When you are in the mood for chili crab, a bit of chili that had once touched a crab is generally insufficient. It is like offering an olive to a thirsty man who has come to your bar for a martini. It is a wonder that I have never seen anyone walk out of Starry Kitchen. Sometimes, until I remember the pork belly XO fried rice, I have been tempted to walk out myself. The crab is that good.

Starry Kitchen is already a restaurant enriched with so many levels of meta that it can be hard to keep straight without a scorecard. It was founded as an occasional pop-up in the Trans' North Hollywood apartment courtyard — for a while, it had the highest Yelp rating of any Asian restaurant in Los Angeles — before moving to a barely converted fast-food place in California Plaza on Bunker Hill. The mall restaurant, although it was not zoned for any cooking equipment much more elaborate than a hot plate, was home to BYO pop-ups of its own, most notably a longish run by French chef Laurent Quenioux. (Last spring Quenioux and the Trans also collaborated on the notorious 4/20 dinners, devoted to marijuana cookery.)

Starry Kitchen also became possibly the most famous restaurant that nobody had actually visited. The Trans were fixtures at almost every food festival in town, where they would appear dressed as characters from "Star Wars," and Nguyen, a former William Morris agent, once addressed a restaurateurs' convention dressed head-to-toe as a banana. In kind of a "Borat" move, Nguyen induced Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to eat a fried tofu sphere while Nguyen was wearing a sign saying, "Please enjoy our balls in yo' mouth."

When Starry Kitchen was bumped from the food court, it wound up as a semi-permanent evening pop-up in Tiara, Fred Eric's lunch restaurant in the fashion district, except on Sundays, Eric's fried-chicken night, which you could think of as a brick-and-mortar popping up within a pop-up popping up within a brick-and-mortar. It's all very complicated, and I will leave the permutations to the semioticians. Suffice it to say that you can pretty much depend on finding Starry Kitchen's Sichuan wontons and double-fried chicken wings at Tiara from Tuesday through Saturday nights, although it wouldn't hurt to call first, especially if you want to reserve one of those crabs, which you should do 24 hours in advance.

The food-court Starry Kitchen was famous for its relentless weekly menu rotation, usually taking the Malaysian chicken banh mi off the menu just at the point when you were hungry for it again. As a dinner destination, it is more stable, if you discount the fact that the Burmese chicken wing confit, listed on the menu in strike-out type, is off the menu while the existence of the spicy braised chicken feet is something you would know about only if you follow Starry Kitchen on Tumblr. As I said, it's complicated.

You eat family style, shoveling your food from communal service plates to smallish bowls, which means the green curry from the tofu dish is going to commingle with the chunks of grilled eggplant and the tangles of garlic noodles, in case you are bothered by that sort of thing.

You will end up with the citrusy chunks of chicken thigh, wrapped like a tamale in (inedible) pandan leaf and deep-fried, or those crisp tofu balls (delightful before they congeal into clay) or sticky double-fried chicken wings. There is a turbocharged version of bo la lot, everybody's favorite course in the traditional Vietnamese seven-beef dinners, except wrapped in Korean ggaenip leaves instead of Vietnamese betel leaves, which are rarely perfect when you find them in Los Angeles, and even more strongly flavored with lemongrass.

The fried rice is made with slivers of roast pork belly and the dried-seafood components of XO sauce, which makes the rice expensive at $15 but also irresistible: caramelized, half-crunchy, ultra-garlicky and exploding with chewy bursts of umami. This is not the gentle Yangchow fried rice that comes at the end of Chinese banquets. The satay noodles, also pretty expensive, come with Nguyen's admonition — "WARNING: This dish is VERY Asian" — along with a boatload of Niman Ranch beef, dried shrimp and eye-wateringly strong shrimp paste, a recipe for definitive funkiness, although it is only stenchy within the context of this distinctly non-Asian dining room.

You can get Thi's take on Vietnamese caramelized fish clay pot, less syrupy than some, made with fresh striped bass instead of the usual frozen catfish, and spiked with chunks of pancetta. You can also get the leftovers from that bass: heads and tails, crisped on the grill, served with sweetened fish sauce for dipping. The heads and tails may be your favorite thing on the menu if you like digging for cheek nuggets and forehead bits with your fingers. The fish heads too tend to sell out early in the evening.

jonathan.gold@latimes.com

Starry Kitchen in Tiara Café

One of Los Angeles' favorite pop-ups pops up again — except when it doesn't. Call first to be sure, and to reserve the chili crab.

LOCATION

127 E. 9th St., Los Angeles, (213) 814-1123, starrykitchen.com

PRICES

Appetizers, $5-$11; main courses, $11.50-$22.95, more for crab; desserts, $5-$6.

DETAILS:

Open 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. Beer, wine and sake. Validated lot parking.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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