Jitlada's mango shrimp salad, below
I had moved on from Jitlada to more interesting Thai restaurants several years ago. But when I noticed a note buried at the bottom of a Chowhound post on Thai restaurants, noting that Jitlada had an all-new menu of Southern Thai specialties, I was intrigued. Naturally, the specialties were listed only in Thai -- the familiar old Jitlada menu was the same otherwise (I used to love those spicy scallops!) The Chowhound poster, Eric M. from Chicago, detailed an amazingly painstaking labor of love in which he sat for several days with the new owner Tui and translated the entire Thai menu into English. Eric called it the best Thai food he had ever had in the U.S. -- could this actually exist just a few miles from my house? I couldn't wait to try it, but I didn't want to take too many people until I found out if I actually liked Southern Thai food.
Fresh turmeric, sator beans, frogs legs with santol fruit, young tamarind shoots and palm vinegar are just a few of the rare ingredients that go into Southern Thai cuisine, which is full of fragrant curries, fresh herbs and unusual vegetables. Tui's sister Jazz told us that after they bought the restaurant a year ago, they realized local Thais, like us, had pretty much deserted the place. She helped persuade her brother to develop favorite family recipes from their native area of Nakhon Sri Thammarat province near the Malaysian border and hopefully lure back the Thai community.
Jazz and the young waitresses speak excellent English, so armed with their help and Eric's invaluable translation, we dove into the menu. We started with tumeric-seasoned soup with chicken (I think it was kài bàan tôm khĩi-mîn). Similar to the familiar tom yum gai but much less sour, the soup had a a rich chicken flavor with lightly curried note from the fresh turmeric and large chunks of chicken on the bone. Next up was Kkhûa klíng “Phat Lung,” known as a dry curry. Our beef version (below) was soupier than the one Eric had photographed, and brought Matt to tears with its searing heat. Jazz told us the curry sauce had no coconut milk -- clearly, this dish didn't give up space to anything except incredibly hot pureed chiles. It was at this point that Matt, who is always thinking up ideas for new horror movies, wanted to know if you could die from eating something too hot. In the nick of time, a shell-shaped dish of carrot sticks, cucumber slices and cabbage on a bed of ice arrived to help cut the searing heat. The arrival of the iced veggie first aid kit came too late for Matt, who had already retreated back to the soup. Finally, we tried the mango salad (yam má-mûang), which could grace the menu of any upscale fusion spot. It was sweeter and more straightforward than the usual funky, spicy Thai papaya salad -- a refreshing mix of green mango, cashews, peanuts, and fresh shrimp. I don't know if the salad is usually supposed to be mild, or if they were worried about us after the crying-into-the-beef-curry episode.
Of course the owners were curious about how we found the translated menu, and after dinner, the grateful Jazz insisted we try her exquisite homemade pumpkin coconut custard. She was adamant that we return soon for the colorful Songkhla-style rice salad, steamed mussels, deep-fried turmeric seasoned red snapper and sticky rice and mango. She also says this is the only place to get this style of food in the whole U.S. -- and if that's true, we are some lucky Angelenos.
Read about lots more great dishes at Jitlada including curry soft shell crab at this update.
Jitlada Thai Cuisine
5233 1/2 Sunset Blvd.