Jitlada, nestled in a strip mall along an eastern stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Thai Town, is probably the best Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. I say ‘probably’ because even though it’s a tedious drive from the Westside, and even though there must be tens (if not hundreds) of other Thai joints, I’ve never felt compelled to wander elsewhere. Sometimes there is a long wait, and sometimes it’s hard to flag down a waiter once seated, and sometimes (very rarely) there is a serious wait for our food, but even then, there’s never a doubt about Jitlada’s quality, the richness of Chef Tui’s flavors, the sure-fire ability of the Southern Thai spices to punch me square in the sweaty, mouth-breathing face.
Over the past few years, I was fortunate enough to befriend Jas, the rambunctious, kind, incredibly sweet and jolly owner, for whom Jitlada is a family-run labor of love. Her brother is the main cook, and other family work as hosts and wait staff. The menu is daunting, with hundreds of dishes sprawling over multiple laminated pages (one LA blogger’s quest to try them all here), but over the past few years, we had figured out our version of “the usual.” Since it would be a long time before I’d set foot again in this Hollywood neighborhood of low-slung buildings, 99-cent stores, and broken pavements, I ordered the whole gamut of favorites. To start, we had the crying tiger pork, steamed clams (which come in a phenomenal spicy soup), and fried papaya salad.
I’m very partial to cozy spots with stories and character, places where the people are passionate about food – Jas provides all of those qualities in one person. The next wave of dishes included the crispy honey duck, soft-shell crab noodles, Jitlada fried rice, grilled tiger prawns with house red sauce, and the acacia leaf omelet curry with shrimp.
As a finale, the mango sticky rice:
For those with the sensory fortitude, there is a painful experience called the Dynamite Challenge, which consists of finishing a plate of the spiciest curry the restaurant has to offer (diner’s choice of meat, and no limits on accompanying bowls of rice, cups of water, or whatever else is needed to wash it all down). Our friend, Albert (his entertainment industry blog here), who routinely asks for the chili tray and has brought his own Tapatio to one of my dinner parties (a real connoisseur of spicy, in other words), once tried his hand at the Challenge (after much friendly encouragement, and also a promise from Jas’ daughter for a kiss and her number if Albert finished).
We refused to give him water until we could see a first glimpse of the plate underneath the curry. He made it to the water, and the following happened to Albert, who was raised a good Baptist boy in Virginia:
Us: “Albert! You’ve been in the bathroom for 15 minutes – everything okay?”
Albert (groaning): “Yeah…”
Us: “What are you doing in there?”
Albert: “I’m…just praying. To Jesus.”
We later tried to reheat spoonfuls of the curry in the microwave, and literally saw sparks coming out of the tupperware. Work of the devil, I say! Brimstone, blah blah blah. There is a notebook for all challengers to fill out, mostly with such scribbles as “AHHH!!!” or “FML!!!”, although one humble, successful Challenger wrote: “Well, next time I’ll get it spicy.”
This episode was coincidentally how we met Jas for the first time:
Jas: “I heard you guys were trying the Dynamite Challenge. Way too spicy for me.”
Us: “Well, this guy is.”
Jas: “Yeah, my daughter was making a fuss because the chefs were saying they made the curry extra mild so she would have to kiss your friend.”
I will miss you, Jas.
In order of spiciness (low to high): (1) mango sticky rice, (2) pineapple fried rice, (3) Jitlada fried rice (with fried egg on top), (4) softshell crab noodles, (5) crispy honey duck, (6) grilled tiger prawns, (7) fried red snapper with turmeric, (8) Jitlada burger (special request only, with 24-hour notice), (9) crying tiger pork, (10) fried papaya salad, (11) steamed clams, (12) spicy mint noodles, (13) acacia leaf omelet curry with shrimp, and (14) jungle curry with pork ribs and Thai eggplant.
(Also, Jitlada is a good place to spot some celebrities on the not-so-infrequent chance that somebody like Ryan Gosling, Jessica Alba, Aziz Ansari, or Jas’ other famous friends are in the shop. Not to brag, with Ryan (yeah, we’re on a first-name basis) and Eva were at my birthday dinner last year. Sure, they were in the adjacent room and we had no idea until Jas showed us the generous tip that Mr. Gosling (sigh) had given her, but hey, who are you to tell me otherwise?)
(Okay, stop telling me otherwise.)