For most of his young adult life, Diego Argoti has felt like fighting. The long-haired, occasionally profane LA cook found ways to build often imagined (or at least one-sided) personal slights and silent vendettas with lots of people, to go to war with others in his mind even as he battled with himself. The anger was fuel, and when mixed with energy drinks and infectiously loud music it churned together to become Estrano, a psychedelic back-alley pop-up that treated a pasta station like a DJ table.
Hundreds of people would show up to watch the Estrano team party in place, waiting upwards of two-and-a-half hours for whatever unhinged and delicious menu creation Argoti — who spent years working in kitchens like Broken Spanish, Bestia, and Bavel — could cook up. One night, reeling from the come-down from drugs and pushed by the pulse of the music, Argoti struggled just to stay standing in front of his cooking station. He used his belt to strap himself to the mobile burner, and asked someone behind him to turn up the volume. “I was just living in the chaos,” says Argoti. “I was so used to that.”
Even when Argoti got sober in 2021 he was tumultuous, fighting his impulses and past habits by pushing even harder with Estrano. More people, more food, more chaos. More recently, though, Argoti has been trying to lighten up, to focus on what works for this Ecuadorian American kid from Burbank who just loves to cook. He hasn’t lost the hair, the band shirts, or the deep knowledge of LA’s winding food scene, but he is ready to trade chaos for consistency, at least for a little while. Starting in early February, Argoti and his crew of madcap cooks will take over the kitchen inside Echo Park’s Button Mash for a new restaurant called Poltergeist. Maybe it’s a nod to Argoti’s personally haunting past; maybe he just thinks the name is a little bit punk, a little bit funny. It’s probably both.
“The timing has just worked out,” says Argoti from inside the Button Mash dining room. He’s still a little stormy, preferring to cover his face with his hair and a hoodie, but the silence of the closed space and the support of friends and partners Jordan Weiss and Gabe Fowlkes, the arcade restaurant’s owners, is helping. “I’m trying now to be the chef that I always wanted to be, and not the chef that I was. But I struggle every fucking day, with patience, with how to talk to people.”
In a matter of minutes, Argoti and his crew had turned out dishes like mapo tofu-stuffed cabbage with smoked shiitake mushrooms and coconut rice; panang lamb neck with saffron bao and papaya amba; and a whole grilled dorade with crispy-chewy green malawach, a nod to the Bavel dish he helped bring to life. The food is plated, presented, and formalized, served in a dining room with a menu and silverware. Argoti’s even got a separate bar menu that he’s been running for the past several weeks at Button Mash already, and it’s filled with burgers and $9 bowls of butter noodles for the kids. This will not be Estrano.
“Two-and-a-half hours waiting for a dish isn’t cool,” Argoti says of his pop-ups, which will continue at some point in their own frenetic way, he’s sure. “Here I’m trying to cook food that’s sustainable for a community. I’m going to have this menu here every day.”
For Weiss and Fowlkes, having Argoti open Poltergeist inside Button Mash is a chance for them to stabilize too. The corner strip mall hangout reopened eight months ago after being closed for two years. “The reality is that this place is just uniquely not suited to be in operation during a pandemic,” says Weiss.
There were hopes that a partnership with Tacos 1986 would help to refill the dining room, but that collaboration didn’t last long. “There was a large contingent of people who have been under the assumption that we had closed for good,” says Fowlkes.
“This is a big place, a weird place,” says Weiss. “The model is highly unusual. It’s the biggest 90-seat restaurant there is.” But when it works, he believes, there’s almost nothing like it. “When the dining room is full, it’s like ‘Oh, right, Button Mash.’ This is what we are,” adds Fowlkes.
If Poltergeist is a way for Argoti to reckon with his ghosts, it’s a way for Fowlkes and Weiss to stay ahead of their own apparitions. Weiss has been a sounding board, a friend, and a helping hand to Argoti through some of his worst days — and, creatively and personally, Argoti wants to continue to give some of that back, to help Button Mash stick around. He also wants to help his own kitchen team to grow and learn.
“Some of them have very little experience,” says Argoti of his crew, all of whom he asked to be specifically named in full for this story. There’s Sebastian Salazar, Eddenilson Cortez, Rachel Verharst, Mauricio Enriquez, Rafi Ruthchild, Arthur Valenzuela, Mauricio Posada, and Maria De Haro. “We’re like a halfway house-slash-cult for people who just need a place to cook. Poltergeist gives me an opportunity to show that I can provide jobs for people like that.”
“This is a really good way to start to have that responsibility,” adds Argoti, pausing to thank Weiss and Fowlkes for all they’ve given to him, then and now. They thank Argoti back. “I know that if anything happens here, I’m not alone — and they know that too.”
Estrano’s Diego Argoti begins his new menu, Poltergeist, in early February inside Button Mash at 1391 Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park. For now, find him cooking butter noodles for arcade kids from the bar menu.