March 29, 2009

Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Jitlada Restaurant - Dream Southern Thai Feast

About a month ago, I was informed of Foodbuzz's 24,24,24 program, which promotes bloggers listed in their aggregator/advertising network to participate in a contest to propose a dream meal. Around the world in the last 24 hours, 24 bloggers in 24 different cities participated in their meal and will need to post on it by 11:59PM PST. That gives me about six hours to write this post :) To win this month's participation, which includes $250 to fund the meal, I proposed the following scenario:

Proposal:

Jitlada is universally reknown for its distinctive Southern Thai cuisine. It has seen coverage in Gourmet Magazine, LA Weekly, and numerous blogs around LA. The menu would be composed of dishes that are rarely seen outside of Thailand such as crocodile, giant mussels, fried chicken, curries, thai chilis, and sea bass. Almost everything at Jitlada features a through-the-roof level of spice that the average person would run away from, but that a hard-core foodie would enjoy with every bite (and bead of sweat). I would eat my meal with all of my foodie friends whom I've collected over the past few years. Jitlada is located in Thai Town, one of the best places in the Country (if not THE best) to find top notch Thai food and desserts. Jitlada is in a typical LA strip mall, whose glowing yellow sign beckons gastronomes and gourmands from the famous Hollywood Blvd.

jitlada front

Coverage:

I personally know the owner, Jazz Singsanong, and would request a special menu of her best Southern Thai dishes, many of whom are sparklingly new on the menu. Jazz and her cooks whip up dozens of new dishes every year and never fail to wow the local foodie community with more culinary delights from her home country. I would employ my best photography. We would all pack into one part of the small dining room and just take over with our banter and convivial cheer. It would be a true Thai feast: a celebration of LA's fine ethnic cuisine, and a melting pot of Angelenos from all walks of life.

That was virtually the same proposal (with minor edits) that I sent to Foodbuzz. I invite all bloggers in LA that have a Foodbuzz account to submit their entries.

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Jazz was happy to see us after we had chatted briefly at the recent Zocalo event where Jazz was one of the panelists. I covered the event here on my blog. I told her we were going to have a large group the next Saturday and would need a reservation. The restaurant is a small two-roomed space along Sunset Blvd behind a large concrete parking lot in a standard-issue strip mall in Thai Town. The large windows reveal diners packed into small tables, where low-flung lights illuminate the dining rooms. Tapestries and artwork lines the walls, as well as numerous press copies of articles and photos from various publications, such as Gourmet Magazine and LA Weekly. Colman Andrews wrote a glowing review in Gourmet just last summer that highlights Jitlada's stature in the pantheon of ethnic restaurants in LA.

jitlada dining room

Dinner began with the participants trickling in. HC of LA/OC Foodventures was the first to arrive, then Neil of Food Marathon, a well-known proponent of Jitlada's spicy dishes. Tai of Scoops joined us while my pastor, Adam Johnson, and his girlfriend Amy joined us last. Of course, my dearest Christine (choisauce) was by my side, witnessing the marvel of this restaurant for the first time (I know I'm a bad boyfriend for not taking her earlier).

HC neil and tai
HC, Neil and Tai

adam amy and christine
Adam, Amy and Christine

Jitlada's featured dishes revolve around a Southern Thai menu, appended to the ordinary Thai menu that has the usual pad thai and bbq chicken. The classic Thai menu is only there for show, as almost everybody who dines here knows to order from the Southern Thai menu, previous 70 dishes and now expanded to 126 unique and utterly authentic dishes using ingredients and preparations straight from Thailand. Most of the ingredients feature one protein, such as chicken or shrimp, and contain various Southern Thai elements, sauces, and seasonings such as tamarind, turmeric, thai chili, and kaffir lime (which are grown in Jazz's own garden).

We entrusted Jazz to select our dishes since we didn't know our way around the menu as well as she did.

First came a deep-fried morning glory salad, laced with fresh red onions, herbs, and tossed in a sweet, slightly spicy dressing. The flavors burst with a depth that few expected, with the warm crispy morning glory greens providing a lovely foil to the shrimp and vegetables. Addictive but refreshing with its light flavors, it was the perfect "amuse" to our Southern Thai feast. It remained one of the favorites of the night.

deep fried watercress salad with shrimp

Since Jazz knew of Neil's spicy escapades, noted here in his Spiciest Food Marathon, she brought out a bowl of their chili sauce, a deadly green concoction of thai chilis that would need scientific notation to determine the Scofield units. But used prudently with tiny droplets, the sauce would bring out many flavors of each dish.

extra extra spicy stuff

Next came the famous New Zealand Mussels in a lemongrass-infused sweet, but spicy broth. It comes in a hotpot-like device to keep the broth warm. Christine found the broth addicting, pouring it over the mussels and over white rice whenever she had the opportunity. The mussels themselves define "succulent", meaty but tender pieces of seafood heaven. They disappeared pretty quickly, but at $13 a pop, it's worth ordering more than you might need.

famous new zealand mussels

I recall Jitlada's excellent deep fried seabass topped with mango salad that registered a decent 8.5 on my personal spice meter (10 being near deadly). This time I asked for something a bit different and Jazz ordered us this whole deep-fried seabass with rich flesh and crispy skin, doused in a sweet sticky chili sauce. There wasn't too much flesh to go around with 7 people, but I assure you that even the $35 market price would be an excellent treat among two or three.

deep fried whole seabass w/ sweet chili sauce

On paper, the pumpkin lamb dish ($16) sounded great, tender, moist pieces of lamb tossed with pumpkin pieces, carrots, and thai basil. It was definitely tasty, but was overpowered by the other dishes of the night. A bit of that chili sauce would've given it a nice boost.

lamb and pumpkin

At this point, Jitlada's trademark, their spicy dishes, hadn't caught up to us yet. Little did we know what would hit us. This deep-fried softshell crab was covered in a sweet mango salad ($17), which did a good job of hiding the nearly invisible chili that pervaded the salad. We knew this was going to be spicy because our server brought out a dish of cold sliced vegetables which are commonly used to battle intense spice heat. After about 20 seconds, the spice hit, at first a slow seep into the palate then kicked into gear with a roaring intense heat that could bring even the mightiest capsaisin (the chemical compound of "spiciness") junkie into submission. Most of us were using our pink cloth napkins to dab our sweating foreheads and downing the ever-shrinking water supplies in our cups. We quickly ordered thai teas to assuage the pain. The heat died down after an even five minutes, allowing us to continue with the meal in proper fashion. Despite the heat, the plate was delicious - I'd order it again.

softshell crab topped with mango salad

softshell crab with spicy mango salad

Sadly neglected for more than a few minutes while the heat from the softshell crab dish was wrecking havoc, this grilled tiger shrimp dishes covered in a garlicky sweet tamarind sauce finally came up to bat. I worked hard to split the dish (priced at $23) since the dull butter knife wouldn't cut through the hard shell, but once we got to the meat, it was a tad dry. That's more our fault for leaving it untouched while its prime consumption time passed. Still, coupled with the tamarind sauce, the flavors were exquisite. Some lucky diners got to eat the head.

tiger shrimp with sweet tamarind sauce

Our next dish was pork belly with sator beans ($14), a native Southern Thai bean and often called "stinky' beans. Covered in a mild coconut milk sauce and tossed with bell peppers, thai basil and green peppercorns, the flavors were definitely there though the beans lent a slightly off-putting strong flavor that didn't resound with popularity at the table. I liked it and so did Christine.

pork belly with sator bean

Pork jerky, a last minute addition since we were still hungry, was one of the favorites of the night, a scintillating dish of fried marinated pork and flecked with a sweet crust. Juicy and savory, meaty and addictive, Adam remarked, "you could put these on a stick, wrap them, and sell them to kids on the street as candy." Or you could one up that and chop them up and put them in a warm torilla for Thai tacos! Kogi truck, eat your heart out! Easily one of my favorites of the night and priced at a mere $9. A sweet sauce came with it, but they didn't need it.

pork jerky

The last dish comes with a bit of a funny story. Jazz was telling us that she'd received an offer from Food Network to host an episode of the Next Iron Chef, with her signature green curry as one of the main aspects of the show. The rep had asked her to construct the curry using her recipe and videotape it for their viewing. To Christine and I, as well as HC and Neil, this hit a bell. This couldn't possibly be Next Iron Chef, it was Throwdown with Bobby Flay, a show where the cocksure chef challenges cooks and proprietors who specialize in one particular dish. The whole scheme smelled fishy and we warned Jazz not to believe them. It didn't matter to her, or us, because once we tasted this green curry, we knew why it deserved the recognition. Gently creamed with coconut milk, the cosmos of fresh, herby flavors paired with the delicate curry with hints of basil, this curry was one of the best I'd tasted. Tender chicken and fresh vegetables filled in the bowl; spoonfuls of this curry over white rice was perfection. Adam, a curry affionado, waxed poetic while Christine couldn't stop raving about how delicious it was. I concur and at $9 a dish, a bargain.

green curry

jitlada table

We ended our meal here, too full to indulge in any of Jazz's excellent desserts. Even though the meal excelled with so many delicious plates, the cuisine lent itself to conversation and storytelling. I told my classic stories of how I once got accused from a police officer of driving while intoxicated while it was really a durian I had stinking it up in the truck of my car. The night was easy and relaxed while our palates were challenged and enthralled as the meal progressed. Service was unresponsive at times but the place was packed with diners, so we tried to understand. Jazz had been distressed since she had to turn away so many diners who had arrived without reservations.

christine jazz and me

Christine and I thanked Jazz, the cheery and friendly owner, who with her brother, helped recreate the Southern Thai dishes of their childhood. It wasn't more than three years ago that Jitlada's transformation from ordinary Thai cuisine (still reflected in the first part of the menu), took off for culinary heaven once Jazz and her brother introduced this alluring cuisine to LA. Because of her efforts, Jitlada remains a comet in the pantheon of ethnic restaurants that Los Angeles has to offer, perhaps one of the best experiences of Thai cuisine in the country, and always a great place to eat.

Jitlada Restaurant
5233 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 663-3104

12 comments:

H. C. said...

What, no pixelation or black censor bars - oh noezzz!!! ;)

Thanks for inviting me on such a phenomenal meal; everything tasted good to phenomenal, even that literally killer crab dish!

And the mussels and the elusive (and too-full-for) mango sticky rice gives me something to look forward to next time.

pleasurepalate said...

What a fantastic meal. It's been awhile since I've been back to Jitlada. Your post reminded me that I need to make a return trip. :)

H. C. said...

Oh yea, great photos! They're, you guessed it, phenomenal too (I can't believe I used that twice in previous comment, I usually try to watch out for repetitive wording. Blargh!!!!)

Food GPS said...

Foodbuzz clearly made the right choice. Great job of capturing the scene and recounting the meal. You're a great photographer, but that mussel shot is a standout.

choisauce said...

i swear theres crack in that mussel broth, along with the morning glory salad, green curry, etc etc. omgggaahhttt so good!!

i was day dreaming about jitlada all yesterday :) can we go back soon? pretty please??

Nate-n-Annie said...

Hello fellow "24'er"!

Congratulations on being chosen to do a 24, 24, 24 event. And what a fantastic place to do it at! We don't have good Thai food up here in San Jose, so I am sitting here drooling over every dish. Like those tamarind prawns, the fiery mango salad, and even your stinky bean dish.

I had to do a double-take when I saw the picture of your pastor's gf Amy. She looks the spitting image of a friend of ours, Natalie (Lum) Tsui. Could they be sisters?

mattatouille said...

HC: can't wait for your post either! i want to get the mango sticky rice next time.

Abby: great to finally meet you on saturday! you should definitely go back and try some of the new dishes

HC: it's okay, i used "pantheon of ethnic restaurants" twice..i need to edit that haha

Josh: thank you. I remember meeting for the first time at Jitlada so I'll always associate good meals here with you.

Christine: i want those mussels for lunch and that green curry for dinner and those tiger shrimp for dessert and the spicy softshell crab as a palate cleanser

Nate: hm...Amy's last name does not coincide with your friends, but I guess all we asians look alike :)

Anjali said...

I love the photo of the table strewn with Southern Thai goodness. Jitlada is definitely an LA treasure -- great job capturing what looks like a fantastic meal.

Kung Food Panda said...

All of the dishes look great. The pork jerky and the soft shell crab w/mango salad has my attention though. I can't wait to try out Jitlada myself...

Aaron said...

What appealed to me most was that even with the amount of spice, none of the dishes seemed too overpowered by it. That's my measure of a good Thai restaurant--balance.

How big was the traffic jump from Foodbuzz for the 24 meal?

burumun said...

Great photos as usual!!
I'm glad to see some of "slightly spicy" dishes that I might be able to enjoy hehe
Oh and thanks for the warning for the "sweet mango salad" ... I might've fallen for that one otherwise and would've needed 3 gallons of water. Phew.

diglounge said...

Great post matt! I've never been and I need to check this place out. The food looks amazing.