Reporter's Notebook
Save Starry Kitchen's balls

Save Starry Kitchen's balls

He likes to wear a banana suit, drops F bombs into most sentences and has a business pitch that’s more screwball comedy than savvy, but Nguyen Tran is out to save his restaurant with a $500,000 Kickstarter campaign that’s all heart.

Tran and his chef/wife Thi Tran started with an illegal underground concept after losing their respective jobs during the recession. In time, they went legal, opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant called Starry Kitchen in Los Angeles in 2010.

It was more of a fast-casual lunch concept at the time, and Starry Kitchen made progress over a couple of years until the lease was ended. At that point, the couple operated the concept as a dinner pop up in various sites around the city, most recently at a location in Chinatown.

Nguyen Tran (far right) and his wife Thi Tran (in chef’s coat) opened the first Starry Kitchen as a fast-casual spot.

Meanwhile, Starry Kitchen – in particular its crispy tofu balls and signature Singaporean chile crab dish – had won fans across the city. Over the years, the couple has won press coverage from the New York Times, The New Yorker, Food & Wine, NPR, the Food Network and the Travel Channel, not to mention enough raving coverage in the Los Angeles Times and other local media sites to make an A-list chef weep.

But the pop-up model was not proving profitable. Nguyen said he was working on a deal that would have gotten the couple back into a brick-and-mortar location, but it fell through in October.

With his credit shot and no time to cultivate new strategic partners, he decided to turn to Kickstarter to raise the $500,000 he says he needs to move into a spot in Chinatown he has his eye on.

Starry Kitchen’s Singapore-style crab dish with crispy tofu balls is a signature item.

Nguyen admits he didn’t really know how to run a restaurant when they first opened Starry Kitchen. Now he’s ready to do it right.

The Trans have given themselves a Feb. 1 deadline to raise the money. For a $10,000 donation, Nguyen will have the donor’s face tattooed on his arm – or the Trans will devote the restaurant for a night to the donor and 40 of his or her closest friends, if preferred.

Supporters should expect a lot of jokes about balls (the crispy tofu kind, of course). Nguyen is known for his somewhat irreverent sense of humor, as is evident in the video he made for the Kickstarter campaign.

Nguyen admits that he’s a little crazy. “I’m a liability,” he said. “But I have convictions.”

Indeed, what he may lack in marketing polish, he makes up with passion. Nguyen envisions the new-and-improved Starry Kitchen offering pan-Asian comfort food, with both dinner and lunch service and a beer-and-wine license. There will be balls, of course. Lots of balls.

And Nguyen feels the concept will fit well in Chinatown, an up-and-coming restaurant hot spot, where LA’s beloved Roy Choi operates his Chego concept, and Portland, Ore. restaurateur Andy Ricker is opening the growing Thai concept Pok Pok.

As of early afternoon on Friday, the Starry Kitchen #SaveOurBalls campaign has raised $41,583 with 221 backers.

Nguyen said Kickstarter warned him that no restaurant campaign on the site has ever raised a half a million dollars. If the $500,000 goal isn’t reached by Feb. 1, there is no Plan B, he added.

“It’s all or nothing, and it has to be the right amount of money,” he said. “We’re not doing this out of desperation, but out of inspiration. Either we’re doing it right or we’re not doing it at all.”

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