Warming Up With Jitlada
Jitlada is the type of restaurant that's spicy enough that my body actually needs to be geared up in order to properly handle it. I don't just want to jolt my system with the sudden shock of intense Southern Thai spices. Because I planned on visiting Jitlada later on with other Portlanders, I had to make sure to visit ahead of time as sort of a recon mission. It's true: Jitlada's heat is so intense that you have to train.
I had written about Jitlada before but I still stare at the Southern Thai menu like it's my first time there. It's been over a year since Erik's first translation of the menu, and I still haven't managed to make my way through the over sixty specials (and I know that there are even more off-menu items; they simply didn't have room on the page to print).
On my preparatory visit, I stuck with one of my favorite curries as well as a deep-fried dish I'd never had, with about a medium amount of heat.
The kaeng khiaw-waan (green curry) is served with fishballs wrapped around salted egg yolk. This is one of my favorites, and truly the fishballs themselves are nowhere near as spicy as the curry itself. I love just taking the stuff and soaking the curry up with white rice.
The next dish was the plaa ped, a fried salmon dish. Along with the great big chunks of salmon, the fried basil gave the dish an irresistible aroma. Despite the intense flavor, the pieces of salmon still managed to preserve a little of their richness, which helped to cut through the heat. Overall, a very successful dish.
It was a tremendous amount of food for one lunch, and I actually boxed up half of each dish to serve as leftovers the next day (and if you're wondering: still hot after re-heating).
When I met up with my buddy and his girlfriend for dinner at Jitlada, they stared wide-eyed at the Southern Thai menu as well, visibly amazed by the exotic items. I ordered two classics, the rice salad and dry curry beef. While the khua kling (dry curry beef) contained as much heat as advertised, I think the absolute spicyness of the rice salad was a pleasant surprise for the two of them, and instantly let them know that this restaurant was serious business.
In addition to those two dishes, I also ordered two relatively recent additions to the Southern Thai menu: a hot & sour eel soup and grilled chicken served with papaya salad and sticky rice.
The muu neua maeh chan (grilled chicken with papaya salad and sticky rice) was probably my favorite single Thai dish I'd had in LA, and is topped only by the fried Dungeness crab at Pok Pok. It had all of my favorite elements all in one dish: the heat, the acidity, the textural contrast of the rice and the papaya and the grilled meat, along with the smoke coming from the meat's dipping sauce. This was a home run.
The tom pret plaa lai (eel in hot & sour broth) was much tamer than we could have had it (there's an optional "Demon-style" that involves a clear broth), but I think there was already enough heat among the four dishes sitting in front of us. The eel, served in-bone, was fine as a protein accompaniment, but the broth was the real star of this dish. I'll be honest in that I had trouble picking out the flavor of the eel, but then again almost 90% of the eel I'd ever eaten had been grilled, not served in a soup.
There's still much much more of the menu at Jitlada to explore, which means that whenever I visit LA there will always be something new to try. I just have to make sure I'm used to the heat.
Blog post plus pics: