“I feel like a liar and a thief, every day.”
Diego Argoti is no stranger to speaking bluntly about himself. The chef-owner of Poltergeist, easily Los Angeles’s most inventive, unstructured new restaurant, has spent years feuding with himself and his own ambitions. Despite his mellow, almost bashful nature in person, Argoti is a fierce cook with a deep memory of dishes he’s loved, restaurants he’s riffed on, and slights he’s endured. Now, more than seven months into opening his own restaurant inside arcade and craft beer bar Button Mash in Echo Park, Argoti swears that he’s channeling that energy into gratitude and hopefulness.
Most days, Argoti says that he is ecstatic to be able to execute his admittedly chaotic menu in Echo Park, even as he recognizes that the food can be polarizing. He has gotten people all over Los Angeles to sit next to pinball machines to eat — and enjoy — menu items like broccoli beef ravioli and a panang lamb neck with persimmon amba, dishes that feel almost post-modernist and pop culture-inflected in the best ways. Hence the feeling that, right now, he’s managed to get away with something.
“When we started, my goal was to do something really different and really validating,” says Argoti over sandwiches at Open Market in Koreatown. But some of his darker thoughts crept in. “Did I make the right decision to do something so personal and polarizing and different, or was this just a fucking mental breakdown? I might not know until it’s done.”
He hopes Poltergeist isn’t actually done any time soon, but having worked at restaurants like Broken Spanish, he knows that even celebrated restaurants often don’t last. “Places that we look up to, they’re closing,” he says, citing former Fairfax stalwart Animal as a recent example. “I can’t be ignorant to that, and just say ‘Oh, we’re killing it. Our food is so unique.’ That could be our downfall.” Sales have been steady — Argoti also runs a more subdued bar menu with kid-friendly items that sell well, too — and media attention keeps pouring in, but some nights are still slow enough to worry. “I worked at Bestia, and it’s busy every single day there,” he says. “That’s just not reality.”
Rather than sweat the unknown, Argoti is intent on continuing to try to be a true kitchen leader for the first time in his career. His team is young, eager, and relatively inexperienced, placing Argoti at the center of a hurricane of activity and anticipation. “This team, this thing that we’ve created,” he says softly, pausing. “I could do other things without them, but I don’t know if I want to.” When a dish works, or a night of service goes off without a hitch, there is a kind of magic unlike anything else in Los Angeles right now. Argoti knows that he and his employees have something special if they can just hold on. “We won’t know unless we try,” he says. “And I want to try.”
Not every day is perfect. Argoti is working on himself at the same time, and admits that he sometimes falls back on bad kitchen habits. “I still raise my voice,” he says. “It sucks. I’m trying not to. And I ask myself, where is this anger coming from? It’s me. I see my staff, and they’re doing so good. The problem with becoming good is that now you’ve reset your level, and you have to deliver that, all the time.”
Even at their best, restaurants are pressure cookers often filled with opposing desires and personalities. Add to that Argoti’s need “to cook weird food” and it’s easy to see the struggle beneath the seams at Poltergeist. The restaurant is making it, for now, and Argoti says that he is trying to value long-term success — not in the restaurant’s ability to even stay open, but in his ability to embrace being a leader, to keep having fun, and to hold onto the good stuff that happens along the way.
“We had Seth Rogen and a porn star come in on the same day,” he says, laughing. “Two people I’m a very big fan of.”
In the near term, Argoti is looking to restart Estrano, the pop-up food party that first landed him on the larger LA radar, and he says the team’s new level in the kitchen has allowed for a lot of menu ingenuity and flexibility recently. “I think the food just keeps getting better because we work well under that pressure,” he says.
And if it all really does start to spin out of his grasp, Argoti says he’s got one more big idea.
“I want to do the BLT from Spanglish. Like, the most expensive thing on the menu would be this BLT, like $30,” he says. “We got really into it in the kitchen, cooking it over and over, watching the YouTube video with Thomas Keller making it for the movie. We’re going to make our own bread and everything. If things hit the fan, that’s what we’ll do — the BLT from Spanglish.”