I really can't think of a Los Angeles restaurant that's been hyped to me any more than Jitlada. I don't say that as a slam, just to note that my first trip the sanctuary of authentic southern Thai brought with it the baggage of its purse full of accolades. The food ordered from their absurdly lengthy Southern Thai menu is unlike any Thai food you'll find in L.A. The kitchen is small so you can forget the notion of ten-minute check times. A sign on the wall reminds you that each dish is made to order and that 'good food takes time'.
Between the restaurants popularity and small kitchen, dishes can get massively backed up. Some may be willing and eager to wait an hour and a half for Jitlada's Crispy Morning Glory Salad, others may be offended by the mere suggestion. Angela and I will likely go back when it's less busy to dig deeper into the extensive menu. The other four members of our party left relatively discouraged, leaving me a little embarrassed for having so empathically recommended the experience in the first place.
Nevertheless, the unique dishes make up for the unique service. The first to arrive was the Crying Tiger Pork (below), one of the restaurant's red letter dishes. The delicious, juicy pork left us wishing there'd been more of it. Having made a cameo on Food Network's 'Best Things I Ever Ate', the pork is accompanied by a flavorful dipping sauce that balances the heat of its chiles with sweet and salty flavors to help fan the flames. The sauce comes on the side, so the heat can be rationed accordingly by members of party. The Crying Tiger is literally translated, 'as the Tiger weeps'. It packs a nice little punch, but the only tears it induced were those of joy. The great flavors of the pork far outweighed its ability to make our sweat glands move. Had the overall whiteness of our table influenced the spice factors?
Next up was the Crispy Morning Glory Salad (below). It's not the inclusion of shrimp or even the spicy, tangy house dressing that makes the salad so unique. The crispy "glory" comes from the hefty portions of deep-fried Chinese watercress, which is simultaneously decadent and refreshing, while the generous ammount of fried garlic amp the flavor punch up to 11.
A plate of Thai Sausage (not pictured), was a mild and pleasantly refreshing break from some of the hotter dishes. The cured slices of juicy sausage came with a balanced selection of cashews, chiles, shallots, fresh ginger and papaya.
Working our way back up the heat chain, we ordered the Jungle Curry with pork (below), a fiery stew laden with peppercorns, slices of bell peppers and Thai eggplant. Angela could not stop herself, ladling out generous portions of the molten lava over her rice and tracking down every last pork morsel. I was less enthusiastic about this dish, but found my tongue duly scorched. Yet, the supposed "hottest" dish was yet to come.
You know how some people get beer muscles? Well, I like to tell people that Angela gets 'spice muscles', where she not only feels obligated to order the hottest thing on the menu, but to insist to our dining mates that, 'it's not even that hot.' That's where the The Kua Kling Phat Tha Lung (below) comes in. This dry curry beef is billed as the spiciest thing in the house. Jonathan Gold went as far as to describe this fiery dish as '...the spiciest food you can eat in Los Angeles at the moment.'
A few bites in, and Angela's 'spice muscles' were fully flexed, insisting that the heat wasn't much of a challenge at all. In spite of her claims, her face had turned a dramatic shade of red and her lips had swollen to Meg Ryan botched surgery proportions. I took a bite or two and found it roughly comparable to the heat of the Jungle Curry. And was there any flavor beneath the heat? Absolutely. While the spice burns your mouth, the turmeric does a tap dance on your tongue. A mere bite sent others at our table spooning rice into their mouths and grasping for water. Even so, I think Angela may have been right. The kitchen seemed to be going easy on our table.
Recommended for the adventurous. The food here will challenge your definition of Thai food and challenge that person at your table with the biggest 'spice muscles'. Come prepared to wait and you'll be rewarded. This is the closest you'll get to Southern Thailand without bringing your passport. Prices are also much higher then you'll find at the neighboring Thai Town eateries.
Angela has already psyched herself up for Jitlada's 'Dynamite Challenge'- a dish that apparently puts the revered Kua Kling to shame with its hotness. The 'challenge' invites the boldest and bravest patrons to choose a sauce and a protein and Chef Tui will cook it with ghost peppers. This won't be our first experience with the dread Bhut Jolokia. Last year Angela cooked ghost pepper curry and our friend labored through an entire plate of it. Like the good friends we are, we even exploited him through video.
Don't be surprised if you see a Dynamite Challenge post on our site in the near future. 'Spice Muscles' has already started the trash-talking.