The Eat Sheet: Starry Kitchen Co-Owner Nguyen Tran Takes THR’s Taste Test

The former independent film sales representative, who once worked for Cassian Elwes at William Morris, talks pig tails, durian flan cheesecake, ant eggs and more.

For most of his career Nguyen Tran was in the trenches of the film industry, first as an assistant to Cassian Elwes when the producer was still an agent at William Morris, and later in independent film sales making deals with the Weinstein Co. and Roadside Attractions. These days, however, he runs Starry Kitchen, the Southeast Asian-focused downtown L.A. restaurant consistently at the center of the foodie-blogosphere’s salivatory swirl — particularly for its irreverent streak, like a recent off-site $150-per-person cannabis menu created in collaboration between chef Laurent Quenioux (now of Vertical Wine Bistro) and Tran’s wife Thi. The next multi-course “weed dinner” will take place, fittingly, on April 20.

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Current Fixation
“Pig tails! Both Night+Market and The Spice Table serve incredible versions. The meat is so tender, so moist and so willing to take flavor I’m amazed it hasn’t proliferated into pop culture as much as pork belly has in the past couple of years. It’s like fall-off-the-bone tender.”

Known For Cooking
“Durian flan cheesecake. If you don’t know what durian is, its nickname is the ‘king of fruits’ and it’s pretty much the stinkiest fruit known to all of mankind — they featured it on Fear Factor and Andrew Zimmern can’t even eat it. Mostly eaten by Southeast Asians, I grew to love it as an adult — I freaking hated it as a kid. In the cheesecake, I marry it with coconut cream to make it more palatable — and a lot less pungent — and make what I call the ‘gateway durian.’ I think it’s about 1/20th of the stinkiness of normal durian.”

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Go-To Take-Out

“Sam Woo in Chinatown. They make some MSG-riffic fried rice, tasty beef satay noodles, spicy salt pork shops, crunch-ass roast pork and fatty-licious roast duck.”

Adventurous Bite
“Calf’s brain tempura and ant eggs. Both of those dishes recently come from a French chef we’re good friends with and work with, Laurent Quenioux. Let’s say he has a penchant for the unusual, but prepares them in a way that will at least make you consider eating them if you aren’t the most adventurous eater. The calf’s brain tempura is exactly how it sounds, and the ant eggs — which I might add we had to smuggle in from Oaxaca to Tijuana and then across to Chula Vista — sound exotic but when cooked they just taste like eggs!”

Simply Won’t Eat

“Bean sprouts: I just don’t like the taste. I know, I’m Asian, and I serve Asian food, but I just don’t like ’em. I think they taste like dirt!”

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Favorite Snack

“Cheddar jalapeno Cheetos, Korean-style shrimp chips — so good — and a simple and sweet milk-chocolate chocolate chip cookie.”

Dietary Regimen
“I try to stay away from things super-saturated in sodium — i.e. fast food — and go for more fatty, decadent freshly-made foods. Which probably doesn’t balance out.”

Preferred Company
“My wife and good friends from both the food world and film world.”

Pet Peeve
“Shaky tables, especially when you’re trying to have a conversation and it’s shaking so much you can’t concentrate on what they’re saying.”

Big Wish
“I hope we can inspire people to find out more about Asian food because as popular as people think Asian food is, Korean BBQ, teriyaki, sushi and take-out Chinese does not make up even close to the entire spectrum and variety of flavors, experiences and preparations.”

Embarrassing Experience
“Working in film I became a workaholic (like everyone else coming up), and I can say I have the gift to suppress extreme exhaustion to push myself incredibly hard to work, meet, call and/or party hard. Like in the back streets of Cannes — oh, how I miss those nights! But the minute alcohol enters my system, especially my beloved red wine, it’s as if that exhaustion completely unravels and then… I eventually fall asleep at the table. This used to happen quite often — at business dinners too! — and it’s embarrassing. Plus, I’m one of many Asians missing that enzyme to break down alcohol so not only am I asleep but I’m also cherry-red while sleeping. Good times!

Guilty Pleasure
“I don’t feel guilty about very much, but if it’s going to be something it’ll have to be the McGriddle breakfast sammie. There’s enough sugar, salt, fat, cholesterol and all sorts of anti-health guru goodness in there to induce a heart attack in the hearts — and souls — of almost everyone in Southern California. But I love it! It’s so heart-stoppingly good!”

Last Meal
“In Vietnamese it’s called Ca Kho To — a bowl of white rice. In English it’s best described as a Vietnamese braised and caramelized catfish with chunks of pork belly in a clay pot. It’s so savory, delicious and comforting but that’s as far as I can go to describe it. You have to experience it with a nice bowl of rice and then you’ll understand.”