The undefinable cooking at Poltergeist will haunt you

Masa Fried Dorade with Mussels & Cockles at Poltergeist.
You were drawn here to Poltergeist for the evocative cooking of Diego Argoti — for dishes such as his masa-battered fried fish, shown alongside mussels and cockles.
(Ron De Angelis / For The Times)
Share via

The din of a video game arcade that doubles as a restaurant is as unbridled as you’d imagine.

On a busy night at Button Mash in Echo Park, a thousand different bleeps jangle the air. Half the crowd settles into booths along one wall, at tables in the middle of the floor, or in bar seats within sightline of craft beers on draft. The rest are releasing pinball plungers, or staring into screens to battle mobsters and space aliens. This is white noise rendered as Funfetti. The tinny ’80s synth chimes of “Galaga” and “Ms. Pac-Man” weirdly soothe my Gen-X nervous system.

Since February, Diego Argoti has been chef-in-residence at Button Mash. He calls the project Poltergeist, and his style of cooking sings in harmony with the commotion. He creates worlds on plates we only half-recognize, that challenge our cognition and emotions. Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose.

Thai Caesar salad with fried rice paper, sprinkled with powdered parsley and fenugreek.

Yes, those are “croutons” — Argoti’s version for Thai Caesar salad with fried rice paper, sprinkled with powdered parsley and fenugreek. (Ron De Angelis / For The Times)

Diego Argoti next to a row of vintage pinball machines at Poltergeist.

Diego Argoti, chef at Poltergeist, also founded the Estrano Things pop-up three years ago, serving “street pasta.” (Ron De Angelis / For The Times)


Most everyone finds the same way into Argoti’s domain: via the Thai Caesar salad. He saturates frisée in an emulsified dressing that blares with lemongrass. The scent of lime leaves reinforces the herbal brightness. But familiar Caesar ingredients also ring through: anchovy, lots of garlic, mustard, Parmesan. Bites are intense and urgently delicious, on the edge of over-salted without tipping over.

As for croutons? They’ve been reimagined as sheets of fried rice paper, sprinkled with powdered parsley and blue fenugreek and stacked around the salad’s bowl. They look like 2-D renderings of Southern Californian mountains after sudden rains. They crumble easily into shards that crackle and then dissolve on the tongue.

If this opener sucks you in, as it did me, then we follow Argoti into deeper adventures. He blurs national borders in noodle dishes, sets crisped octopus over fry bread that’s stained charcoal-gray from squid ink and embellishes fried whole fish with condiments that reference at least three culinary cultures.

Panang Lamb Neck at Poltergeist.
Panang lamb neck is roasted until it’s fall-apart tender — for piling on fluffy saffron bao.
(Ron De Angelis / For The Times)

Poltergeist — what a name! — serves the most manic, unchecked and wildly envisioned cooking in Los Angeles, and opinions are duly polarizing. I’m enthralled, first because someone has the audacity to shadow his muse to such extremes in unsettled times, and diners have been showing up consistently to make their own judgments. When his combinations click, they register as the taste equivalent of a new language. When they don’t, they can seem willfully dissonant, almost engineered to offend, though I trust that Argoti’s ultimate intention is to express and refine the ideas soaring through his brain at light speed.

Like other food-obsessed Angelenos, I first encountered his out-of-bounds talent through the Estrano Things pop-ups he began three years ago. Their overarching theme became “street pasta,” building on the expertise he gleaned during stints at Bestia and Bavel. Menus could include biscuits-and-gravy pierogies garnished with trout roe, or rabbit albondigas over ricotta gnocchi spiked with vadouvan and flecks of pickled nopales. His meaty, spicy-smoky Taco Bell-inspired Crunchwrap Supreme lasagna, layered into a small aluminum pan, baffled my gray matter and lit up my taste buds. If I hadn’t already waited an hour and 40 minutes in line, I would have queued up again for another.

A spread of dishes at Poltergeist against a red background.
Come for the Thai Caesar salad, stay for the Panang lamb neck, yellow curry bucatini and masa-battered fried dorade with mussels and cockles.
(Ron De Angelis / For The Times)

Argoti first collaborated with Button Mash owners Jordan Weiss and Gabriel Fowlkes in 2020, when he held a pop-up in their parking lot on Thanksgiving, giving away soup for free. The restaurant-arcade reopened post-shutdowns in spring 2022, initially partnering with Tacos 1986 to run the kitchen. Poltergeist more fittingly inhabits the space.

As a general blueprint for a soundly enjoyable dinner, I order the salad alongside a Parker House roll shaped as a cinnamon bun, slathered with miso-infused honey and scattered with a seed seasoning that mashes Japanese furikake with Egyptian dukkah. Butter mixed with puréed Fresno chile comes on the side; the colors recall a Good Humor strawberry shortcake bar. It’s all sticky fun.

“Broccoli beef ravioli” showcases Argoti’s assurance with pasta. The pairing of short rib and broccolini nods to the flavors of the Chinese American menu staple suggested in the dish’s name. Stir the grated mound of Parmigiano-Reggiano into the soy-heavy sauce bathing the ravioli, and the umami sparks fly. The creation heaved salt in its early days, but the kitchen team has since found its way to balance with this one.

The kitchen in action at Poltergeist.
The kitchen in action — make it another Thai Caesar salad — it has become Poltergeist’s signature dish.
(Ron De Angelis / For The Times)

I love the Penang lamb neck, a roasted stump of meat easily pulled apart with a fork and piled on round fluffy bao dyed dandelion-yellow by saffron. There is no sauce, and in a phone interview I asked Argoti about the absence of the referenced Penang curry. He told me he uses a packet of Penang-style spices in the meat’s marinade that have citrusy flavors he likes, but that he was really going for a dry-rub shawarma effect.


Pomegranate molasses and gently fiery amba made with persimmons provide zing to the lamb, as do piles of pickles on the plate and sauerkraut made with Brussels sprouts. Random little cubes of tofu arrive on the side to add optional squish. Argoti likes to unsettle with texture.

That’s never truer than with a small mold of horchata panna cotta, surrounded by puffed rice, that squats on a platter opposite neatly stacked honey-walnut prawns. I am not a fan of sweetness that fights for domination in savory dishes, so arguably this curio was never for me, but the gelled cream’s overt cinnamon edge and its viscous residue pull too much focus. The seafood doesn’t stand a chance.

Chef Argoti outside of Button Mash in Echo Park.

Are you intrigued? Chef Argoti outside of Button Mash in Echo Park. (Ron De Angelis / For The Times)

It's the skeleton crew: Find this guy sitting on a keg in the hallway at Button Mash.

It’s the skeleton crew: Find this guy sitting on a keg in the hallway at Button Mash. (Ron De Angelis / For The Times)

Detail of Mussels & Cockles, part of the Masa Fried Dorade dish.
Mussels, cockles, cherry tomatoes, stone fruit and herbs make for wild flavors.
(Ron De Angelis / For The Times)

Likewise, his desserts — elaborate constructions of cake, a vegan banana split — lean to vinegary surprises and hard-to-identify forms. They often leave an oily, cloying film in the mouth. My favorite is the simplest, and the one that the young, quick-witted crew of servers is most likely to recommend: a lemon bar with a shortbread crust and a scoop of smooth, pleasing avocado gelato.

In a phone interview with Argoti, he mentioned offhandedly that the gelato was based on a recipe his grandfather would make, and that his mother’s Ecuadorean family had an ice cream business in South America in the 1970s and 1980s, and that his father was a grocer. My synapses sizzled. I’ve become so accustomed to eating and writing about food in Los Angeles that presents personal stories with more intentionality than ever. Our best chefs seem more willing to expose their honest selves, to present their communities at the table.


The cooking at Poltergeist breaks away. It has no obvious context to the diner. Its fusions are too twisting, too singular to one person’s temporal lobe, to be categorized as “Italian” or “Thai.” But cooking is always autobiography on some level.

A look into the Poltergeist space inside of Button Mash during dinnertime.
Diners at Poltergeist come for the strange and the delicious.
(Ron De Angelis / For The Times)

Without a tableside narrator, all we know is what our senses tell us. The other night at Poltergeist the server mentioned a special: pici, a fat sort of spaghetti Argoti had rolled into short tapers, in a sauce made predominantly from Parmesan rinds. Puréed hoja santa dyed the pool green and lent earthy tang. But mostly the cheese’s nutty complexity permeated every mouthful. Over the pasta were slices of fried pig’s ear, chewy yet supple and somehow resembling the tomato-slicked remains of pizza crust.

It was strange, a clear work in progress, but also enjoyable and thrilling in its peculiarity. This is why the restaurant fills frequently, why we keep showing up to eat in a blinking, whirring arcade. Some minds we can’t quite fathom, but when they’re breaking through to something fresh, we come to bear witness and see what’s next.


1391 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles (inside Button Mash arcade),

Prices: Salads and starters $8-$18, entrees $16-$32, desserts $10-$12

Details: 6-10:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 6-11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Wine and beer. Street and lot parking.

Recommended dishes: Thai Caesar salad, Parker House roll, broccoli beef ravioli, panang lamb neck. Also check out the selection of unusual, excellent bottled ciders.