Food by VICE

How Arcade Games Gave a Second Life to My Dead Restaurant

I don’t know if Starry Kitchen would have ever come back if it wasn’t for this concept. Our food—and my banana suit chef antics—goes perfectly with everything that Button Mash stands for.

by Nguyen Tran
Feb 4 2016, 12:00am

Laure Joliet Photography: Button Mash, Echo Park. Design by Design, Bitches.

Running an Asian restaurant out of an arcade is just as awesome as it sounds.

It is a little-known fact that dan dan noodles taste better when paired with a round on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade machine. As does a plate of crispy tofu when paired with a couple of matches of Street Fighter 2. (Our crispy tofu balls are kind of like "hadoukens" in your mouth.) Or even some garlic noodles with a little bit of the original 80s Star Wars vector arcade.

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Crispy Tofu Balls. Photo courtesy of Starry Kitchen

I'm a big gamer and I own over 600 console games at home, so this is my dream come true. I can't count how many times I've taken out my frustration of working in a kitchen with either a cook over a match on Street Fighter 2; seeing who is the superior fighter is the best way to end an argument. As a chef, you really get to understand your customers after playing arcade games with them.

These are the things you learn when your restaurant is located inside Button Mash, which is the only arcade with Asian food in the entire country.

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Dandan Noodles from Button Mash. Photo courtesy of Starry Kitchen

However, our story is a little more complicated than that. In many ways, Button Mash saved my restaurant and my life.

Our restaurant, Starry Kitchen, had a not-so-legal beginning. And the rest of our journey has also been notoriously rocky, to say the least. When we got kicked out of our first brick-and-mortar restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, we struggled to find our place in the city's quickly developing dining scene. Sure, we got reviewed by Jonathan Gold while we moved around from space to space, but even his golden touch doesn't mean much when you don't have a solid restaurant to call your own.

Having a tentative space, menu, and money does not necessarily equate to opening a restaurant. Opening a restaurant doesn't really happen until you actually open the restaurant.

When our highly publicized, all-or-nothing #SaveOurBalls Kickstarter campaign to save our restaurant failed, I went through some pretty dark, emotional times. I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried many throughout this time because of the uncertainty of it all. I was even having issues with my wife, who is my both my partner in life and in Starry Kitchen.

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Miso charred Brussels. Photo courtesy of Starry Kitchen

I couldn't help but think: Did we just become another chapter in LA's past food scene? Did people still want us around? We were barely getting by with catering events for friends, and we even did an experiment to resurface via UberEats to find out once and for all if we were still relevant.

Then Button Mash came.

The idea for the concept actually started four years ago, when I met my two soon-to-be business partners. They came up with the idea, as they loved our food and are both arcade collectors who have traveled all around the US visiting arcades. But one thing that I've learned is that like any other idea, you don't really know if it is ever going to happen—especially for a restaurant.

Having a tentative space, menu, and money does not necessarily equate to opening a restaurant. Opening a restaurant doesn't really happen until you actually open the restaurant.

galangal chicken fried rice

Galangal Fried Rice. Photo courtesy of Starry Kitchen

We didn't have an official opening day up until a week before we actually opened (October 21, 2015, which was Back to the Future day, of course!). There's not an exact science to figuring out an opening date for a restaurant; it was a juggling act of doing it when we were ready, appeasing investors, and keeping the people we've hired long enough to hold out and train them—and then pull the trigger and hope for the best.

Cheesey corn from Button Mash

Cheesey corn from Button Mash. Photo courtesy of Button Mash

I don't know if Starry Kitchen would have ever come back if it wasn't for this concept. Our food—and my banana suit chef antics—goes perfectly with everything that Button Mash stands for. The first night we opened, we had 500 people show up, and we had a thousand people show up over the weekend.

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Nguyen Tran in his banana suit. Photo courtesy of Starry Kitchen

The best part about running a restaurant inside of an arcade is that people legitimately come in to have a good time—it's just not the "hardcore foodie" crowd that shows up when you run a normal restaurant. The response has been great and it has been really fun. You can come in and have great Asian food, great wine, great craft beer, and then play as much motherfucking pinball as you want at the end of it all.

As told to Javier Cabral