Jitlada (Los Angeles, Summer 2013)

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My greatest culinary regret from my years in Los Angeles is not exploring Thai Town more than I did. Los Angeles is home to a very large expatriate Thai population, reportedly the largest Thai population outside Thailand (you can probably repeat this statement for a number of ethnicities). And Thai Town (designated in 1999)–on the eastern end of Hollywood–is home to a large number of Thai restaurants. And then there are a number of acclaimed restaurants in places such as Norwalk and Garden Grove as well. We’ve eaten lunches at two of the Thai Town luminaries on this trip. 

Thai restaurants in most of the United States (and in West L.A too, for that matter) lean heavily to the sweet part of the sweet-hot-sour-bitter-salty continnum of flavours that Thai food is said to harmonize (I’m no expert), and while much of this Americanized Thai food is pleasurable, it can get very cloying. And given its prevalence, and given our general reluctance to learn about distant cultures except through their restaurants, it can be hard to discover  that there are other approaches to Thai food. It was a long time, for example, before I discovered that not all Thai food contains coconut milk, and even longer till I discovered that Thai food is quite regionally specific as well. I’m embarrassed to say that I still know very little about the breadth/depth of the country’s foodways.

At any rate, while there are isolated outposts in a few American cities that deliciously complicate the predominant simple view of Thai food, Los Angeles, and Thai Town in particular, have a large number of places within hailing distance of each other where you can sample a broad range of Thai flavours. The champion as far as my limited experience is concerned is Jitlada (post-2007 when ownership changed), whose extensive menu of esoteric southern Thai specialities is both unparalleled in this country and quite unlike mainstream Thai food (though they do that stuff very well too). (This is old news to food forum veterans and Angeleno foodies, and if any such are reading they should really do something about those rolling eyes.) We’ve been eating at Jitlada since early 2008 and always go back at least once on our regular trips to L.A, and usually twice.

This trip was no exception, but we got a bit of a nasty shock when we looked at the menu: it’s all the same good stuff (though the back of the menu is now less cramped, being spread over a larger number of pages) but the prices have risen quite sharply. (I scanned the intertubes when we got back from lunch and it appears there’s some anger and even some backlash building out there in the zone of reasoned give and take that is Chowhound.) As per our young waiter there was one sharp increase last November and another some weeks ago. He acknowledged that he was quite taken aback by the rate of increase as well when it first happened. This led to us not pigging out as much as we usually do, but we weren’t shy either.

What we ate (click on an image to launch a larger slideshow with captions):

All of this plus one large Singha came to $115 with tax and tip (and we took home enough for another meal). Which brings me back to the price. There are five overlapping things to say about this:

1. Just last year this same meal would have cost 2/3 the price (if not less).

2. This is probably pretty close to what this food should cost, and if the restaurant had started out at a higher price and built up steadily to this level it would likely not have caused as much consternation.

3. While you’re certainly not paying for ambience here, and the service remains as slow as ever, it seems perfectly reasonable to me to pay some premium for a menu as unusual as the southern specialities here.

4. If I paid this amount of money for a meal at a French/Italian/New American restaurant that made me as happy I would think it was a steal. I might get better ingredients when it came to the meat and seafood/fish but I wouldn’t get any leftovers. Indeed, it was $5 cheaper than our meal at Kiriko, whose ambience is only slightly better, and I wasn’t inclined to complain about that price. Sushi (and other Japanese food) has, of course, made it out of the “ethnic” price ghetto, whereas Thai food in general still has a long way to go.

5. It’s still not very expensive in the abstract. Factoring in leftovers it really works out to about $23 per head. Which is cheaper than dinner at the Cheesecake Factory.

So, in sum, I guess I’m saying that shock aside, this is not incommensurate with what you’re actually getting and much better than many other places where you’d pay as much or more without blinking an eye. It is the case, however, that it quite drastically raises the price bar for Asian food in a casual setting (this meal was twice as expensive as our other Thai lunch in the neighbourhood–see below). I’m not sure what led to the price hike. Perhaps it is confidence that their reputation with non-Thai foodies is strong enough to weather high prices (the percentage of non-Thai diners at Jitlada is much higher than at most places in Thai Town). Perhaps Matt Groening made them pay for the cartoons that are now prominently displayed on one of the walls in the front room (yer bastard!).

(By the way, the food at Jitlada can get unfeasibly hot. You can theoretically ask for the heat to be turned up to level 10, but I wouldn’t advise it; I once had one dish–a fish curry–at level 8 and when the first spoon hit my tongue I saw things that would make the Revelation of St. John the Divine seem like a doll’s tea party. Unless you have a very high heat tolerance, even at level 5 you’ll be sweating and panting like a slightly corpulent racehorse coming around the first bend at the Kentucky Derby. I don’t actually know if there are any bends at the Kentucky Derby–shurely there must be.)

Jitlada’s not the only show in Thai Town, however. There are lots of other places with less ambitious menus that offer variations and departures from the norm. On this trip we managed to break out of our slavish devotion to Jitlada and eat at another of these places, Yai, of which more in a subsequent post.

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