Friday, January 21, 2011

My Fave Bites: Starry Kitchen - Where Rice Balls Rival Meatballs

Japanese Meatball Curry Banh Mi Sandwich
Starry Kitchen, the downtown LA brainchild of husband and wife team Nguyen and Thi Tran, didn't take the ordinary path to becoming a restaurant. It began as an underground eatery run out of their apartment in North Hollywood, proving once and for all that good things can indeed come from the Valley. Uh, like, whatever!

I first heard about their down-low shop through The A-Girl, my frequent dining companion and a friend of the couple. She raved about their food. At the end of their underground run, Nguyen and his "Kitchen Ninja" spouse were serving 50 to 60 people a night before the health inspectors shut them down (ah, government regulations). You can read all about it in this great LA Weekly article.

But don't fear--this story has a happy ending.

Starry Kitchen is now a full-fledged restaurant in downtown LA, serving lunch Monday through Friday and dinner on Thursday and Friday nights.

While I don't often venture downtown, for Starry Kitchen I decided to make an exception. First, I enlisted two dining companions for my culinary adventure--pals Charlyne and Sean. They're both vegetarians. I'd heard wondrous things about Starry Kitchen's vegetarian cuisine and figured they'd be good tasters.

After finding street parking (a virtual miracle!) and wandering aimlessly around a giant food court like lost school children, we finally stumbled into Starry Kitchen. By then, we were famished. The menu has a unique set-up--you choose your protein (there's always a veg option), how you'd like it served (Banh Mi sandwich, wrap, or lunch plate), and a side. The menu changes regularly.

Crispy Kimchi Rice Cakes (Side Dish)
I opted for the Nebraska Angus Japanese Meatball Curry basically because I'll eat anything with "meatball" in the name. Char and Sean opted for the Crispy Kimchi Rice Cakes. We all choose Banh Mi sandwiches as our protein delivery method with Crispy Shallot Fried Rice as sides.

Chicken Wing Soup
I also got a side of the rice cakes (I'm a sucker for kimchi and had heard that they were delectable), the Chicken Wing Soup (this was a dish from their Test Kitchen run), and a Pandan Flan for the table (their flan is slightly green from the pandan and steamed rather than baked).

All the food was superb--however, and this is hard for me to admit, for once the rice balls trumped the meatballs. There, I said it! The Crispy Kimchi Rice Cakes were wonderfully crispy, as advertised, with tangy, spicy kimchi and tender rice. They were like an Asian take on arancini, the Italian fried risotto balls. The meatballs were also delicious, coated in thick yellow curry, on a sandwich with pickled veggies (including jalapenos which I'd requested). I also dug the soup, a sweet chicken broth studded with tender chicken wings.

Pandan Flan
At the end of our feast, the flan was the perfect sweet ending. The pandan gave it an aromatic component, and the custard was light and fabulously moist. It's definitely the first time that I'd even eaten green-ish flan!

If you're in downtown LA, or looking for a fun field trip, Starry Kitchen is definitely worth the trip. Your taste buds (and your veggie friends) will thank you.

Char, Sean, The Diva, Nguyen & Thi
Starry Kitchen will be participating in Dine LA (Jan. 23rd-Jan. 28 & Jan. 30-Feb 4). Visit Dine LA for more details.

Click here for complete Photo Gallery

Starry Kitchen
350 S. Grand Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90071
(213) 617-3474

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