Starry Kitchen launches $500,000 Kickstarter to save the restaurant

Starry Kitchen

Nguyen Tran and his wife, chef Thi Tran, hold a dish of Singaporean chile crab at Starry Kitchen when it was a pop-up restaurant in Tiara Cafe.

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Starry Kitchen co-owner Nguyen Tran wants you to save his balls. We’re of course referring to his crispy fried tofu balls, a staple on the restaurant’s menu, along with the reserve-only Singaporean chile crab. 

Tran, who can often be found walking around Chinatown in a banana suit, owns the pan-Asian Starry Kitchen with his chef-wife Thi. In a review of a Starry Kitchen pop-up, Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold said the restaurant was capable of breaking hearts when it ran out of its signature Singaporean chile crab.

Tran and his wife have put together an effort to save their balls, and crab, with a $500,000 Kickstarter campaign they’ve named #SaveOurBalls.

With that money, he’s hoping to leave the Grand Star Jazz Club in Chinatown, where the restaurant currently pops up every Wednesday to Saturday evening, and find a place of their own. Tran said he’d been talking to traditional investors for years, but that it never really worked out the way he’d planned. He got the idea for a Kickstarter campaign from a fan of the restaurant. 


“This is our go big or go home moment,” said Tran. “I’ve heard about it [Kickstarter] for years now, and we’re drawing the line and just saying, ‘we’re going to go big or not do it at all.’" 

Tran and his wife started an occasional pop-up in their North Hollywood apartment before moving to the California Plaza food court on Bunker Hill. He’s done marijuana-laced dinners with the pop-up group 4/20 dinners, was offering order-online lunches from a cooler by the Angels Flight in downtown, and popped up at Tiara Cafe before landing at the Grand Star Jazz Club.  

“We’re in the hole, not for a lot of money, but we need to get out of it,” said Tran. “And for us to move forward, we need to do it right.”

For Tran, launching a Kickstarter campaign for $500,000 may be the right way, but Kickstarter warned him about trying to raise such a large amount. 


“Kickstarter is scared for me because if we get this, it will be unprecedented,” said Tran. A quick search on Kickstarter shows a restaurant called Travail in Robbinsdale, Minn., raised $255,669 after asking for $75,000. 

Tran has set a 30-day goal to come up with the money. And he’s got some interesting rewards for his potential investors. If you put up $10,000, Tran will get a unicorn tattoo featuring your face on his forearm. 

“It’s steeped in something I’m actually amused by,” said Tran, who got a glitter tattoo of a unicorn on his arm a couple years ago. “What am I going to tell my parents? I sold my body for money." 

In addition to the tattoos, he’s planning a sexy calender of himself and his food, and he also contemplated hand-delivering packs of beer to investors’ houses, and having a beer with them. He’s also planning special dinners at investors’ homes, at the new location (if funded), and offering a way for investors to be involved in the restaurant’s planning. Tran will host Google hangouts where people can help collaborate on ideas for the new spot, host menu tastings and more. 

If he reaches his goal, he is looking to open a permanent Starry Kitchen in another spot in Chinatown. 

“I’m not leaving the area that I spent building,” said Tran. “It was me and Roy [Choi] that built it, so why would I leave that?”

And if he doesn’t reach his $500,000 goal, it could be the end of Starry Kitchen.

“There is no other plan,” said Tran. “If this doesn’t work, we’re shutting it all down. Not because we’re mad or sad. We’re happy with what we’ve accomplished, but we need to just go forward and be happy." 


943 Sun Mun Way, Los Angeles, (213) 626-2285,
Crispy balls and spicy crab? We’re going to need more napkins. Follow me on Twitter @Jenn_Harris_

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