Bar-arcade Button Mash returns after pandemic closure, with Tacos 1986 serving inside
The pings, zips and buzzers of 1980s arcade games are filling the air at Button Mash once again, but now, so is the scent of adobada.
Fans who’ve been holding onto their Button Mash tokens since 2020 can finally slide them back into the bar and restaurant’s video-game cabinets: The Echo Park arcade beloved previously for its craft beer, natural wine, and bites from pan-Asian pop-up Starry Kitchen is back, but this time with food vendor Tacos 1986 at the helm.
The much-missed Button Mash on Sunset Boulevard reopened April 14 — after announcing it only that morning — and teamed up with the Tijuana-style taco operation that began as a street cart in 2018 and has since become one of the most recognizable taco chains across L.A. It marks the first time the space has opened since October 2020, and is now offering asada, chicken, mushroom, and trompo-sliced adobada tacos, mulitas, vampiros and quesadillas just a few blocks from Dodger Stadium, along with new Tacos 1986 items exclusive to the Button Mash location.
“We sat down and had a really cool conversation,” said Tacos 1986 cofounder Jorge “Joy” Alvarez-Tostado, who explained the partnership has been in the works for at least a year. “Obviously my brain went ballistic when I thought of pinball machines and hearing my voice and the team’s voice could feed this area.”
This is the first full-service model for Tacos 1986 and its first beer and wine menu, as well as the local chain’s sixth location; a seventh, in Studio City, is slated to open May 1. There are desserts for the first time in the taqueria’s history — including an avocado chocolate mousse made with both Hershey’s chocolate and imported cacao from Tabasco in Mexico — and opportunities to experiment: There’s a seafood-tower-inspired taco tower, which stacks 15 guac-topped tacos in tiered trays for sharing.
Just behind the bar, red neon spelling “Tacos 1986” hangs over the window to the kitchen, where one can view asada on the grill and fresa salsa being made. Alvarez-Tostado said he’s also been working on a new secret menu.
Before we get on to the business of the review, I should confess that I have never been able to get past a dozen or so screens of the video game “Food Fight.”
The partnership also offers a new path for Button Mash co-owner Jordan Weiss.
The bar and arcade — then serving Starry Kitchen food from Nguyen and Thi Tran — tried to remain open through various pivots during the pandemic’s first year: a limited takeout-only menu, a makeshift patio when onsite dining became optional again, and a weekend-only to-go prix-fixe dinner service. It lasted just under eight months of the pandemic before ownership decided to place the business into an “extended hibernation.”
“We could have kept it going, but it was extremely grueling,” Weiss said. “At one point we had pared down to whatever is smaller than a skeleton crew; we were really killing ourselves and it didn’t seem like it was worth it from a mental or physical perspective to try to continue with that, not knowing how long of a road we were headed down.”
Other pop-ups such as Perilla began to rent the kitchen space during the closure, while ownership wondered if they would ever reopen their business as intended. When they began crunching numbers and plotting Button Mash’s comeback, they soon realized that rising food costs, paper costs and labor costs would shape a very different experience than what fans had known before the pandemic’s start.
Starry Kitchen’s signature wings could have shot from $9 to $20, while the cheeseburger could have run $18, as opposed to its prior $10. That felt antithetical to the approachability and affordability of Button Mash, Weiss said.
At street stands that sell Tijuana-style tacos de adobada, the eye-catching centerpiece is usually a trompo — a vertical rotisserie stacked with marinated pork.
They began brainstorming potential food vendors to bring to the space and landed on Tacos 1986. Weiss already counted himself as a fan.
“There was nothing remotely controversial or even dramatic about that move being made,” Weiss said, adding he’s understood some of the surprise he’s encountered from diners since the Thursday reopening without Starry Kitchen. “People knew us for the games and the bar but also for the food — it’s what made it unique, but it was a really unusual model. It was a sort of quirky margin-blending act between the bar and the food and the games.”
Nguyen Tran echoed the sentiment. She said there are no hard feelings given the split, and that the Trans simply want to find a way to serve their fans again, affordably, and in a way that can provide enough time and attention for their family.
Starry Kitchen will most likely return not as a full restaurant but possibly as a pop-up or retailing its dishes as a frozen-food line, possibly renamed as Shin Starry Kitchen — and like its former host Button Mash, in a new iteration.
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