Monday, August 2, 2010

Jitlada - a restaurant to visit

Did you know that Los Angeles has the largest Thai population in the world outside of Thailand? "Thai Town" is the name for a neighborhood centered along Hollywood Boulevard between Western and Normandie Avenues.

The neighborhood began in the 1960s after the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 made it easier for immigrants from Asian to come to the US, but it really began to boom in the 1980s after the end of the Vietnam War and an economic crisis in Thailand.

A giant hot dog at a closed food stand on Western and Hollywood marks the entry to Thai Town

I remember my first experience at a Thai restaurant, back in the '80s. By 1990, every city and every college town in the U.S. had at least one Thai restaurant serving pad thai noodles with peanuts, and chunks of chicken breast in a coconut-milk curry over rice.

Here in Los Angeles, Jitlada was just another joint in a strip mall in Hollywood. But in 2007, a Chicago visitor and Thai food enthusiast picked up a take-out menu in his hotel lobby and saw - after the usual mee krob and pad se ew offerings, a small notice printed in Thai touting the "best southern Thai cuisine."

He headed over to the restaurant and introduced himself. The ownership had recently turned over to chef Suthiporn Sungkamee and his sister Srintip (known as "Jazz"). The food was amazing. The Chicago man sat down with the owners and translated the "off menu" - that is, the menu written in Thai that isn't offered to American diners. He posted about it at a food forum, which ended up at Chowhound, and suddenly Jitlada became a destination for L.A. 'hounds - and for Pulitzer-prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold. Gourmet Magazine did a story about it that you can read HERE.

You can read the reviews at various L.A. food and here and here

Or you can join [The Man I Love] and me for a trip to Thai Town and lunch at Jitlada.

We parked on Hollywood Boulevard near the big neon signed Thailand Plaza. This two story building houses a supermarket, a DVD store, and a store selling clothes and sundries on the ground floor, and a large restaurant on the second floor. It was a large, empty restaurant the afternoon we went.

Outside the building, facing the sidewalk, is a large and colorful shrine to the Thai Buddha, mirrored and festooned with garlands.

We went into the supermarket and browsed, looking at all the packets and jars of curry pastes, the great selection of fresh seafood, the assortment of colorful Thai dolls and buddha figures.

Jitlada is on Sunset Boulevard, a block south, so we walked, passing stucco apartment buildings and old '20s houses beneath the wide-spreading branches of mature shade trees.

The restaurant is in a strip mall, and exhibits the ethnic and functional diversity typical of L.A. strip malls. Here, an herbalist and a video store plus another Thai restaurant share the strip mall with an Armenian restaurant - and with what's said to be the best Southern Thai restaurant in America.

There are two dining rooms side by side at Jitlada - we were seated in the second one, at a table just below the bar. The decor isn't fancy. There's a large Thai wood carving on one wall, and the tableclothes are colorfully printed Thai calico, but other than lots of framed reviews, there's not much ornament. Colorful modern pendants hang over most of the tables, but our table was graced with a '70s style fake stained glass lampshade that said "Michelob" on it.

The menu is vast. The first six pages are divided into courses like appetizer and salad, and offer the usual Thai dishes. Beyond that, though, is a densely typed list in black and white, arranged by protein type (fish, chicken, seafood, lamb, etc.) with the Thai names of the dishes followed by brief descriptions. Although I didn't count them, there are said to be over 300 dishes listed.

A small list of popular dishes was displayed in a small plastic stand on table. This, along with the printed reviews under the table's glass cover, served as a guide for ordering.

Thai meals are intended to be a balance of all tastes and flavors - hot (spicy), sour, salty, sweet and bitter. Dishes are meant to be shared with the whole table - it's not polite to order one dish just for yourself. Rice is an important part of every Thai meal.
Meals usually include an assortment of dishes - something stir-fried, something in a curry sauce, a salad, something very spicy, and something cool and sweet. Southern Thai food is notable for its emphasis on fresh herbs and spices, like turmeric; an abundance of fresh fruits, and vegetables, and a variety of seafood. The south of Thailand is a land bridge between the Asian continent and Malaysia - a place where Indian, Chinese, Thai and Malay cultures mixed and mingled. Many southern Thais are Muslim, so southern Thai food often relies on lamb and beef.

At Jitlada, the chef cooks with ingredients grown fresh in the owners' garden - fresh chiles, lemongrass, herbs and limes. The recipes come from his home region and from his own family.

Our first shared dish was a meat stir-fry known as Crying Tiger. You could choose beef or pork - we chose pork, which was a wonderful choice. Morsels of tender marinated pork were served with a dish of sauce on the side. This sauce - a lime-chile concoction, brimming with chile seeds - was promoted by the Food Network as one of the best hot and spicy foods around. And hot it was - I cautiously dabbed my pork into tiny teaspoon-sized pools, and ate rice after each delicious bite. [The Man I Love] was more adventurous. He wrapped some pork in the lettuce leaves and dunked it right into the sauce.

We shared a large bottle of Singha Thai beer, and glasses of lemon-scented water to keep our mouths cool.

Our second dish was something I'd read about and was also featured on the little card - a salad of fried morning glory and shrimp. Here, "morning glory" refers to Ipomeoa aquatica, an Asian vegetable also known as water spinach, Chinese watercress, or swamp cabbage. It's also called kangkung, rau muong or pak boong, in Malay, Vietnamese, and Thai - and is common in Southeast Asian cuisine.

In this salad, it was battered and fried until crispy, then tossed with slivered red onions, bits of cooked shrimp, and herbs in a bright, sweet and pungent dressing. It was amazingly delicious, and the texture of the fried greens was out of this world. There was a tingle to it, but it wasn't hot and spicy like the previous dish.

[The Man I Love] chose the third dish based on a recommendation from a food blog. This was fried chicken drumsticks, served with papaya salad and sticky rice. Normally I don't care for chicken drumsticks, but these were fascinating. They were deep-fried to a fare-thee-well, dry, almost like jerky, yet wonderfully crispy and delicious to gnaw off the bone. They were served with a sweet-sour red sauce, and with a bowl of one of my favorite things, green papaya salad. The salad had fresh green beans and lots of plump cashews. There were crispy bits strewn over the platter - they were crunchy and spicy. I'm not sure what they were, but it was all marvelous.

Now that I read more about the place, I realize how much more there is to try! New Zealand mussels. Rice salad. Something called Jungle Curry. Crabmeat claws with mango salad. Crispy fried catfish. It all makes the mouth water. We'll have to go back soon.


Sue (Someone's Mom) said...

We just got our first Thai restaurant a few months ago. I have only had the food once, but it was delicious. Your pictures made me very hungry!

Deja Pseu said...

Sounds fabulous!

We tend to go to Natalee Thai on Venice out of convenience and habit, but if we get to that neighborhood will definitely check it out.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Was your first Thai in Columbus, Aunt Snow?

I see Lemongrass recommended in the Short North...I haven't been there yet, though.

Aunt Snow said...

Hi, Thunder - no, not in Columbus. My sojourn there was pre-Thai restaurants. I think I had my first taste of Thai food in Seattle.

Deja Pseu - we all have our fave local joints. I'm partial to Cholada on PCH in Malibu. But Jitlada is really an extraordinary place - if you go, page past the color-printed menu pages and go right for the Southern menu.

Chuck Pefley said...

Wonderfully vibrant looking food. Wow!

Interesting comment about painting the building at the end of the Coupeville wharf! And yes, I would imagine it's been painted at least once more in the last 20 years.

Gilly said...

You live in an amazing city! The food looks so colourful I would love to try some.

Mary said...

Next time we are in LA I'll know where to eat. I love the background you provided for today's post. The food looks wonderful. I hope you are having a great day. Blessings...Mary

Ellen Bloom said...

Excellent food photos! I drive by this place all the time; have read about it for years and have never been! I will make an effort to go this weekend, based on your recommendations! Thanx!

M. Bouffant said...

Wow, synchronicity a-go-go!

Was just talking to friends yesterday whose local Thai place closed & they wondered if I knew any places. (Sent them a link.)

And, I know Ellen Bloom from the real world!!

This is making me nervous.