Jonathan Gold has a singular talent for making the mundane sound special, fascinating, and unique. I should have remembered that when I let myself be intimidated by his description of the khûa klíng phat lung at Jitlada: "the spiciest food you can eat in Los Angeles", "a turmeric-rich endorphin bomb", and "a searing, tongue-scouring, chile-intensive dish". So when I ordered it, I decided to forego the unequivocal directive that I usually present at Thai restaurants: "Very very spicy. Thai hot. Very spicy. Yes, very spicy." (Because I have that I-like-wonder-bread-and-baloney-sandwiches look about me, around here such a request usually results in a dish that I would call "medium". In Atlanta, it got me dishes that were "very hot". Go figure.) But I figured that if it was hot enough to sear JG's tongue, then it would probably be on the high side of what I could tolerate.
Well, to put it bluntly, it ain't all that. If you order the plain khûa klíng phat lung, you'll get a dish that is somewhat more piquant than black-pepper flavor beef jerky. No, I'm not exaggerating. Chew it a little while, and you'll feel a little zip in the back of your throat...but that's it. It does have a pleasant, earthy flavor, but without the chiles it's not a balanced dish. So when you order, don't be afraid to ask Jazz to put some fire in it. (I thought about asking her to "adjust" it, but they seemed very busy and I figured it probably wouldn't be the same unless the chiles were cooked in.)
I don't want to give the impression that I didn't enjoy my visit. On the contrary, I'll be heading back to Jitlada as soon as I can. The spicy mango salad was an out-of-this-world mixture of sweet mango, juicy shrimp, tart citrus dressing, and I-don't-know-what-else that left a huge grin on my face and a happy, fiery sensation on my lips. And the catfish/tea leaf curry had a complex, rich, earthy character that I've never come close to experiencing in a Thai curry before.
So, yeah, Jitlada gets a very definite thumbs-up, but don't be shy when you order.
I've had the khua kling range anywhere from pleasantly hot to thermonuclear. It's *far* easier to make something more spicy than less, so when in doubt, err on the less spicy side.
Mssr. Gold's penchant for descriptive superfluity aside, there is a very good chance that your order was processed as "foreign." Hard to believe, I know, but it happens all the time. In fact, in a town like this, I'd bet that it happens more often than not.
The next time you go to a Thai restaurant in Thai Town sit by the kitchen pass-through and pay attention to the audible orders:
Did you hear that? "Khon farang"? That was the sound of a non-native order hitting the kitchen. Someone just received "differential treatment." Which, in all probability, means that someone is about to receive less salty, less spicy, less assertively-seasoned food.
"What can I do to insure myself against that," you might ask?
Well, as it's been suggested so many times on these boards, you can request that your food be made "Thai-style," or "more spicy," or whatever. But--and I mean this--unless you speak the language, or are accompanied by someone who does, there is NO guarantee that the waitstaff/kitchen will comply.
At any rate, having said all that, you will be well-served by asking the staff at Jitlada to punch up your order. They'll listen. I promise. But, don't say I didn't warn you. <see footnote>
Here's how an order of khua kling works:
When the order is placed, a small tub of premixed meat/curry is retrieved from the cooler (where it has been "blooming") and tossed in a hot wok. Now, if it's a standard "foreign" order, the dish will be finished WITHOUT additional chile. And, if it's a "native" order, or an order which stipulates that it be made "more spicy," the dish is finished WITH additional chile...and to varying degrees.
<footnote> I was at Jitlada the other day when an order came in from some Southern Thai people in San Francisco. They asked for 12 orders of khua kling, kaeng bai cha-phluu, and kaeng phuung, and all of it "very spicy." So, what happened? Well, when the magic words "phet maak," and--not "khon thai," but--"khon TAI" (i.e., "Southern people") hit the airwaves my inner 14yr old surfaced and begged Phii Uan for a taste. And, then? Well, I could barely swallow a spoonful of the kaeng phuung with rice. And, THEN? Then, an hour later, I threw it up. Really. I threw it up. The only other time that has happened to me in my 30+ years was when I swallowed a tiny spoonful of Dave's Insanity Sauce. <no smile>
That's a true story. My friend Howard had a bottle of Dave's in the fridge at hunting camp. I didn't know from Dave's at that point so I thought, what-the-heck. An hour later, while I was chest-deep in the lake with a fly-rod in my hand, the Dave's sauce came up. <cringe> It took two men to haul me ashore. And, at that point, the Dave's sauce decided to come *out* too. <evil grin>
Aaaanyway, I'm going to plan a Jitlada dinner on the event board soon.
I hope you'll join us.
re: Erik M
I'm quite certain that the order of khûa klíng was prepared "foreigner style". I thought I'd avoided that pitfall when the mango salad came out seasoned to (or, at least, closer to) Thai standards.
There have been times that I've wished that dishes could be ordered in Scoville units. "I'd like the green curry with eggplant. Make that a 2500, please." Although I suppose that some feeling of adventure would be lost, should this ever be standardized.
Perhaps ordering "...khon thai" will help avoid some of the ambiguity, especially at other restaurants not as used to the Chowhound crowd. Though I'll probably mispronounce it and get some funny looks.
By the way, if you let Dave's Insanity sit on the shelf for about six years, the heat becomes bearable. It doesn't help the taste any, though.