Jitlada: The Best Thai Food – If You Can Handle The Spice

I have spawned an insatiable addiction to spicy food over the last few years and, finally, I have met my match. Jitlada, the southern Thai restaurant in the heart of Hollywood’s Thai Town claims to serve the spiciest food in L.A. and, after my tear-jerking, hallucinatory dining experience, I am inclined to believe them.

Thai Jungle Curry with Salmon and Eggplant

Thai Jungle Curry with Salmon and Eggplant

Not exactly known for my patience, I’m lucky my first dining experience was Take-Out. One thing I have since learned is that the wait at Jitlada is obnoxious. It actually goes so far over the line, there should be a sign upon entry that warns:

Unless you are not hungry and have all the time in the world to spare, we will send you over the edge – GUARANTEED.

It really feels like a test to see whether or not you deserve the food there. You can’t reserve a table for parties of less than five and if you walk in and wait by the door you will be left standing unattended, or made to wait outside.  It’s hit or miss as to whether or not you will be handed a menu and trying to attract one of the waitress’ attention becomes a frustrating game because some of them don’t speak English and act as if they are totally unaware of the fact you are flapping your arms at them in a desperate attempt to garner some attention. I can never relax or engage in conversation until I have placed my order which means I am usually sitting at the table in silence frantically waving for a good half hour. I’ve finally learned to order two large Singha beers to myself the second I sit down so that I no longer care when my food arrives but even getting that far is a challenge.

Jazz the Mafioso Matriarch. I love her.

Jazz the Mafioso Matriarch. I love her.

I had the flu during my first actual visit to Jitlada, the perfect opportunity to test out the spice potency on my blocked sinuses. I had seen a picture of their signature jungle curry and had my heart set on eating it within the hour. The dish is traditionally made with pork spare ribs and Thai eggplant, but they have a salmon version too which I ordered rare, with additional eggplant and peas.

Despite plowing through everything else on the menu, so far the jungle curry is still my favorite. It’s riddled with various flavors that manage to seep through despite the fact that your tongue feels like it’s going to disintegrate after every bite. In addition to Thai eggplant, green beans, peppers, branches of fresh green peppercorns, and fresh chiles: Jazz uses an assortment of herbs and spices which she grows in her garden.  These include kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and galangal (a rhizome similar to ginger but more bitter and piny). Turmeric plays a vital role “in every single curry” and another of Jazz’s revelations is oyster sauce: “I make everything with oyster sauce. Not too much, but it’s the secret. If you have one jar of oyster sauce in your house, American food will taste much better.” All in all Jazz claims her trick is to make everything fresh and, considering how many mutations of curry there on the menu, I would be more surprised if the food didn’t take so long to prepare.

Jitlada has been around since the 70s but it wasn’t until Suthiporn Sungkamee, or “Tui,” and his sister Srintip a.k.a. “Jazz” took over in March 2006 that it garnered any attention. Having acquired its name four owners prior to them, when Tui and Jazz came on board they decided not to change it. They got rid of most of the old recipes and pretty much started from scratch, with Tui cooking his generations-old family recipes and Jazz handling everything else, much like a Mafiosi Matriarch. The siblings were raised with nine more brothers and sisters in Nakhon Sri Thammarat, where their grandmother taught toddler Tui their inherited family recipes. The restaurant stands out from most other Thai dining rooms. It resembles a home more than a sterile eating area, scattered with trinkets and Jazz’s daughter, nieces and nephews frantically running around.

Jazz, Tui and Family

Jazz, Tui and Family

Four years ago, they were grasping for customers. Forced to waste away fresh ingredients night after night, Jazz would make her habitual prayer offerings to Jatukam Ramathep. And then one day, Chowhound poster Erik M. came along and saved the day. Upon a visit to Los Angeles, he picked up a take-away menu that read “The very best Southern Thai food from Jitlada.” Even though the bilingual menu looked exactly the same as it had done on his last unimpressive visit, he noticed the cryptic Thai print surreptitiously inserted in the back and decided to take his chances. He ordered from the new scrawl and was amazed to find those presumptuous words were true. He went back habitually during his stay, sampling the list of age-old Southern Thai recipes, as Tui morphed the same ingredients into unrecognizable explosions of tumeric-saturated flavor from one day to the next.

A quirky disfunctionality at Jitlada is the layout of the menu (largely written in dialect, remaining a mystery to most of the Thai waitstaff and totally wasted on their oblivious customers). There’s a regular menu at the front with some of the traditional, more Americanized dishes and a back page with an incoherent list of Southern Thai specialties that clearly hasn’t been edited since its translation into English in 2007 (by Erik M). The food is vaguely categorized by type of meat, fish or vegetable as opposed to appetizer, soup, salad or entrée making it difficult to find anything you’re looking for and that’s if you happen to discover the back page in the first place. I think this is a ploy to make you work even harder for your food as, like Erik M, I am now on a mission to discover all the secret specialties camouflaged in the jumbled layout and have obsessively been back multiple times a week since my first visit in an attempt to do so.

Fish Kidneys as featured on Jonathan Gold's 99 things to eat in LA before you die

No matter what you order or how mild you order it, the food is sure to trigger your bowels into action. Jazz told me that three women have called her to report that they had given birth within 24 hours of eating her curry.  Excluding the Dynamite Spicy Challenge – which involves choosing a spicy mint leaf or curry sauce base and a protein, taking a bite and preparing to sweat spinal fluid – the jungle curry is meant to be the spiciest dish in the house, which I believed until I tried Jonathan Gold’s recommended fish kidney curry and started tripping. Seriously. It came with an egg omelet and a bed of ice with cucumber, raw cabbage and carrots to help with the pain but nothing could prevent me from sweating out of every pore in my body as the walls swirling around in a warm, psychedelic haze and I felt like I was in an interactive Doors music video. I could sense my friend was sharing the same out-of-body experience as his eyes glazed over and we both struggled at coherence as we forced another bite of pleasurable pain into our mouths. As much as I love Jonathan Gold, I do not think that fish kidneys are something you have to try before you die. It tasted like cheesy feet and is the one dish so far that I really didn’t like.

Enormous Juicy Green-Lipped Mussels from New Zealand in a Spicy Lemongrass Broth

The staple dishes there which I alternate are the coco mango salad, crispy morning glory salad and tom yum soup and I order at least one portion of the steamed mussels every time I sit down. They are these enormous, green-lipped mussels from New Zealand and even if you don’t like mussels you will devour these juicy ones. They are bathed in an overwhelmingly aromatic broth of lemongrass, basil, dried chilies and a ton of salt which you are encouraged to slurp dry.

The coco mango salad is a combination of dried coconut, mango, cashews, shrimp, onions and garlic. It tastes like a tropical explosion.

Coco Mango Tropical Explosion

The crispy morning glory salad is deep fried Chinese watercress served with shrimp in a spicy, sour, sweet, limey dressing.

kaeng ài “Mang-kon”: fish balls stuffed with salted duck eggs in a green curry sauce. The curry is milder than most of the others and I love the chewy, doughy texture of the minced fish crust.

Fish Balls Stuffed with Salted Duck Eggs (Photo Courtesy of Jo. S)

Fish Balls Stuffed with Salted Duck Eggs (Photo Courtesy of Jo. S)

Mango Sticky Rice. Oh. My. God. It’s worth going to Jitlada just for this dessert. Jazz says the trick is the palm syrup she drenches it in but I think she adds a dash of crack on the sly. We went for my friend Rebecca’s birthday and I asked Jazz to make a cake out of it and she willingly obliged.

Heavenly Mango Sticky Rice

Here’s the menu that Erik M. first translated. Since then, there are about 200 recipes on the menu to choose from:

01. kaeng khĩaw-wãan khài “Mang-kon” : green curry with egg-yolk-stuffed fish balls 
02. kaeng tay poh plaa châwn hâeng : Southern Thai-style curry with dried mudfish and water spinach 
03. kaeng néua khĩi-lèk : spicy curry with beef and pickled cassia buds 
04. kaeng lẽuang kûng yaanãd rẽu lawkaw : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with shrimp and pineapple 
05. kaeng lẽuang “Thaalaa” : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with catfish and pickled bamboo shoots 
06. kaeng lẽuang plaa bawk àw-dìp : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with mullet fish and taro shoots 
07. kaeng kài khĩi-phrâa : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with chicken and bottle gourd 
08. kaeng kài nũn àwn : spicy curry with chicken and young jackfruit 
09. kaeng kòp sôm tháwn : spicy curry with frog legs and santol fruit 
10. kaeng kûng yâwt khãam àwn : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with shrimp and young tamarind shoots 
11. kaeng kûng yaanãd : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with shrimp and pineapple 
12. kaeng kûng wùa thùa : spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with shrimp and jicama 
13. kaeng jèut plaa mèuk yát sài : “bland” soup with minced-chicken-stuffed squid 
14. kaeng plaa dùk bai chá-phluu : a spicy, tumeric-seasoned curry with catfish and wild tea leaves 
15. kaeng pàa plaa dùk lûuk tàw : spicy, tumeric-seasoned “wild” curry with catfish and sator beans (no coconut milk) 
16. kaeng phûung plaa kûng sàp : spicy, fish kidney curry with minced shrimp 
17. kaeng phûung plaa plaa yâang : spicy, fish kidney curry with grilled fish 
18. phàt phèt lûuk tàw puu nìm : spicy stir-fry with sator beans and soft-shelled crab 
19. phàt lûuk tàw “Meuang Khon” : Nakhon Sri Tammarat-style stir-fried sator beans 
20. khûa klíng “Phat Lung” : Phat(tha)lung-style spicy, tumeric-flavoured dry curry with pork or beef 
21. kûng naang òp wún sên : giant shrimp baked in a clay pot with mung bean noodles and peapods 
22. kûng sa-dûng fai : grilled whole shrimp topped with a special dry curry sauce 
23. kài bàan tôm khĩi-mîn : tumeric-seasoned soup with chicken (bone-in) and kaffir lime leaves 
24. sii-khrong mũu krà-thiam phrík thai : deep-fried pork ribs seasoned with garlic and black pepper 
25. tôm khẽm nàw mái lûuk tàw : salty soup with tumeric, coconut milk, sator beans and shrimp 
26. tôm yam kûng naang : sour and spicy soup with giant shrimp 
27. plaa thâwt khĩi-mîn : deep-fried tumeric-seasoned fish 
28. plaa thâwt náam plaa jâo khãwng râek meuang thai : seabass seasoned with fish sauce and deep-fried 
29. plaa thâwt râat phrík : deep-fried fish (seabass, catfish, pompano, or pomfret) “smothered” in sweet chile sauce 
30. plaa thâwt râat phrík sãam rót : deep-fried fish (see above) with “three-flavoured” sauce 
31. plaa bawk tàet dìaw : dried/fried mullet fish (pieces) 
32. plaa bawk tôm náam sôm jaak : sour soup with tumeric, mullet fish and nipa palm vinegar 
33. yam prîaw dâwng : pickled crab salad 
34. yam plaa dùk fuu : fried, shredded catfish salad with chile 
35. yam sôm mûang “Pak Nang” : Amphoe Pak (Pha)nang-style papaya salad 
36. khâo yam “Songkhla” : rice salad in the style of Songkhla province, with assorted vegetables and a sweet sauce (náam budu)
37. khanõm jiin “Meuang Khon” 5 náam 3 dâng : rice vermicelli with fish balls and your choice of curry sauce 
38. khâo nĩaw sômtam kài yâang lâap náam tòk : sticky rice with papaya salad, grilled chicken, minced meat salad, or “waterfall” meat salad 
39. néua tàet dìaw / néua sũwan : dried/fried beef “jerky” 
40. puu pèn phla : raw blue crab salad with lemongrass, mint and chile 


2 Responses

  1. Oh my Gawd! This sound so adventurous and delicious that I cannot stand it…. I have as a result of a freakin’ stressful life of late, an ulcer….so shall have to delay the partake of these fire-ball-mouth-drying wonders for a bit…
    Thanks for sharing your ventures and your fun writing…keep ’em coming

  2. thai food is very delecius

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