Underground L.A. Restaurant Reveals Secret Recipes

Covert California restaurant Starry Kitchen shares stories and recipes from its infamous past in new cookbook.

Erica Riveraby Erica Rivera
Double-Fried Chicken Waaaaaaaaaaaangs. Photo: Bao Minh Nguyen.

Adventures in Starry KitchenWhen Nguyen Tran cooks, he does so balls out. Tofu Balls, that is. The crispy green rice appetizer was among the defining dishes of Starry Kitchen, one of America’s most notorious underground restaurants that began in Tran’s North Hollywood, California apartment back in 2008. The Vietnamese-American foodie and his wife Thi (a.k.a. the Kitchen Ninja) began serving home-cooked Asian fusion comfort food on their patio for a $5 suggested donation during lunch hours. Reviews began appearing on Yelp, making the very illegal Starry Kitchen the #1 Asian fusion restaurant in all of Los Angeles on that site. Press followed, as did a visit from the health department. After operating in “black-ops” mode for three months, the couple opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Starry Kitchen’s recipes are a mystery no longer. With the publication of Adventures in Starry Kitchen, Tran reveals 88 dishes that contributed to Starry Kitchen’s success. Spam Brussels Sprout Fried Rice, Salted Duck Egg Cereal Prawns, Claypot Caramelized Striped Bass, and Black Sesame Panna Cotta are just a handful of the exotic, tongue-tingling creations in this hilariously informative cookbook. Included with the recipes and stunning food photography are stories about Tran’s food adventures and restaurant hijinks, from being exposed to new cuisine by a Thai prostitute to a celebrity-studded marijuana dinner to a transglobal trek to try the Tai Lei Loi Kei Macanese pork chop sandwich to Starry Kitchen’s heartbreaking fail at Coachella.

Nguyen and Thi Tran. Photo: Bao Minh Nguyen.

Starry Kitchen founders Nguyen and Thi Tran. Photo: Bao Minh Nguyen.

While navigating tricky situations like delinquency on sales tax, surviving periods of “funemployment”, and being forced to shut down Starry Kitchen (more than once), Tran proves himself to be a rule-breaking, banana suit-loving badass who thrives on chaos. Even if you never get around to making the food, there’s plenty to feast your eyes on and feed your curiosity in these pages.

Though Starry Kitchen is now closed, Tran’s legacy lives on at Button Mash, an Asian fusion arcade in Los Angeles. He shared this classic Starry Kitchen recipe with us.

Double-fried Chicken WAAAAAAAAAAAANGS

Try frying something right once without burning it—that’s tough. Double fry it and don’t fuck up—that’s SCIENCE.

Ingredients:

  • 1 pound chicken wings*
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cornstarch

* In our humble opinion, bigger wings are not always better. Less meaty wings make the best-tasting wings.

Preparation:

1. Season chicken wings with equal parts salt and pepper—just enough to lightly coat the wings, then rub gently into wings.

2. Mix flour and cornstarch in a mixing bowl. Dredge each wing in the mix until there’s NO visible moisture on each wing. Shake off excess, then set aside on a plate or rack.

3. Pour 2 inches of oil in a pot, or enough to submerge the wings. (If you’re frying up whole wings—where the drumette, the wingette, and the tip haven’t been cut apart—pour in 3 inches.)

4. Over high heat, heat the oil to 350°F. Par(tially)-fry the wings for 10 minutes, then remove from pot, and shake off any excess oil. The par-fry cooks the chicken completely through, sealing in the flavor, while starting to form the outside crispy layer.

5. Set wings on a paper towel–lined plate or rack for 5 minutes, or until they cool to room temperature. This prevents the meat from overcooking, while keeping in its moisture. OPTIONAL: You can store the par-fried wings in the fridge and do the second wing fry the next day. Just be sure the wings are at room temperature when you fry them.

6. Once the wings cool down, reheat the oil to 350°F and fry them a second time for 10 more minutes. The second fry crisps the wings to the point of delicious crunchiness. Remove wings, then shake off excess oil. Brush on or toss wings in a bowl with your favorite sauce (Tamarind Wing Sauce is mine!). Or, if you just want the purest form of savory crunchy-ass wings around, eat ’em as is, which I often do as a “taste test.”

7. I know I’m the stupid one out there, but when I finally realized that flavored chicken wings were just fried wings that were tossed in a sauce of your choice, I was BLOWN AWAY! I don’t know how I thought wings were flavored before, but I’m also a man-child and learning about anything new blows . . . my . . . MIND! And another funny revelation: The sauces represent specific steps in Starry Kitchen’s evolution:

Sweet Ginger Chicken WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANG Sauce = lunch days

Tangy Korean Pepper Paste Wing Sauce = dinner pop-ups

Tamarind Wing Sauce = Button Mash

Okay, maybe no one cares that wing sauces are the purest symbolic form of our evolution (but I think it’s pretty cool).

Makes 2 – 4 servings.

From Adventures in Starry Kitchen: 88 Asian-Inspired Recipes from America’s Most Famous Underground Restaurant. Copyright © 2017 by Nguyen Tran. Reprinted with permission by HarperOne, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers.