A Look into the Allure of Underground Dining with Starry Kitchen's Nguyen Tran

Pop-up restaurants have recently begun appearing in more and more cities, offering chefs a venue to explore cooking dishes outside of their own restaurant or to test culinary concepts that may one day be transferred into a brick and mortar.

Yet another restaurant concept has also been been making headlines: underground dining. These illegal restaurants operate without proper licensing and are often times run in personal homes or other non-zoned locations.  

One of the best known underground restaurants was Los Angeles’ Starry Kitchen, run and operated by Nguyen Tran and wife Thi Tran. Thi and Nguyen pursued cooking as a pastime, posting a number of photos of their dishes to Facebook before food photography became en-vogue. After Thi lost her job, the two were encouraged by their friends to give their cooking a go and the duo got together and opened an illegal restaurant in their tiny apartment. With just a few folding tables on the patio and a donation box at the front, the first few dinners were comprised mostly of friends of the Trans, however down the road, they began leaving flyers in neighboring apartments and news about their tiny restaurant began to spread.

Learn more about Starry Kitchen here

LA’s Chinatown Undergoes a Dining Revolution

Chinatown

For decades, Los Angeles’ Chinatown has been dominated by a number of traditional Chinese dining options.  Yet over the past several years, a surge of new restaurants serving a range of cuisine from Cajun to Mexican to Japanese-fusion have begun to appear.   

While Chinatown may seem an unlikely choice for these modern eateries, the neighborhood's dining revolution makes a lot of sense.  As areas such as LA’s Historic Core and Arts’ District began experiencing unprecedented growth, many savvy restaurateurs identified Chinatown’s close proximity as prime real estate for opening their restaurants.  The low rent and high levels of foot traffic also made Chinatown a safe bet for entrepreneurs looking for low risk ventures. 

Residents of the neighborhood have been generally welcoming of the gentrification that allowed for Chinatown to stop competing with the San Gabriel Valley, LA's food capital of authentic Chinese cuisine, and instead follow in the likes of neighboring Little Tokyo by incorporating a mix of old and new cuisine while still maintaining the area’s distinct cultural heritage. 

Recently, a number of celebrity chefs such as Portland’s Andy Ricker and LA’s own Roy Choi and Nguyen Tran have opted to open up shop in Chinatown, bringing a new hype and excitement to the neighborhood that will hopefully put Chinatown back on LA’s food map. 

Read more about how this new wave of dining has revitalized the neighborhood here