By Noah Kaufman
Updated January 06, 2015
Credit: Courtesy of Starry Kitchen

You could be forgiven for thinking that Nguyen Tran isn’t taking his $500,000 Kickstarter campaign seriously. After all, that’s him up there dressed as a giant banana. But the co-owner of Los Angeles cult favorite Starry Kitchen is on a mission to make the first permanent location of the restaurant a reality. And there are stakes: If the Kickstarter fails, he says that will be the end of Starry Kitchen. They will simply pack up and do something else.

The Starry Kitchen story is pretty well-known in Los Angeles but less so in other parts of the country. It started as an illegal operation in 2009 in the apartment Nguyen shared with his wife, Thi, Starry Kitchen’s self-taught chef. “My wife has always been a talented cook, but when she was growing up she wasn’t allowed to work in the kitchen,” Nguyen said. He said that as a child her parents told her she shouldn’t have a career as a chef; her parents, who were immigrants, didn’t consider the kitchen a place to make a good living. That was fine with Thi—she worked in advertising. But Nguyen said after she lost her job in 2009, she was inundated with people encouraging to try cooking professionally. “I said to her, everyone can see you love food except for you. You’re unemployed and you ain’t got shit to do. Let’s open an illegal restaurant.”

Since then, the Trans have worked out of two pop-up locations, putting out amazing pan-Asian dishes like Singapore chili crab and crispy tofu balls, which have earned accolades from the likes of Jonathan Gold, Roy Choi and our own Dana Cowin.

The Singapore Chili Crab from Starry Kitchen

Their current pop-up is in LA’s Chinatown, and if the campaign is successful, Nguyen said they plan to stay in the neighborhood. He thinks it’s the perfect place for a diverse restaurant like theirs. “I love Chinatown. It’s the wild, wild West. No one comes here for Chinese food. El Monte, Monterey Park, all over East LA they do Chinese food better than Chinatown. So what’s happened now is that everyone else is coming to the neighborhood. You have the best Cajun restaurant in LA, Pok Pok is coming in, Eggslut is opening their new ramen spot, everyone is coming to Chinatown.”

The Trans’ goal remains ambitious, though: $500,000 is a lot of money to ask for, especially when you consider that most Kickstarter projects are fully funded with $10,000 or less. But for anyone who doesn’t believe Starry Kitchen needs that much money, Nguyen put in a full breakdown of what he estimates everything will cost, from construction of a new bar and open kitchen to beer and wine licensing, and it adds up quickly. But even though he’s thinking about the numbers, Nguyen isn’t thinking about failing. “It’s not that I don’t want to think about it. It’s that I just won’t think about it.”

And as for that banana suit, you’ll still be able to find Nguyen wearing it no matter how much money they raise. One of the rewards he’s offering is a full night of service from him dressed as a giant banana. Is it all kind of nuts? Sure. But Nguyen says he hopes the whole thing, from the do-or-die goal to the fruit costume, will excite the masses. “Me being a lot crazy gives other people permission to be a little crazy.” And on Feb. 1, we’ll see if it was all crazy enough to work.
If you want to donate to the Kickstarter and get a night of banana service, your name on the bathroom wall or your face tattooed on Nguyen’s body, you can do it all here.