After a few bites of curry, the tall, curly-haired guy reaches for his water glass frantically. He'd heard about Jitlada from chef friends and he can't believe he waited so long to come, I hear him say, as he takes another long swig of water. Minutes later, his posse of three jumps up and heads outside to cool down from all that searing chile heat. That's when I recognize him: the former fromager -- cheese guy -- at Comme Ça, standing in the glare of the shabby Hollywood strip mall. Suddenly, the woman with him starts turning cartwheels in the parking lot.
That's when I wish I had a video camera to capture all the wonderful zaniness of dinner at Jitlada. I'd photograph the cars idling, waiting for a spot in the tiny lot, the gaggle of people inside -- Thais, Hollywood hipsters, ardent foodies, tourists -- all sitting patiently at tables covered in brilliant Thai brocade, waiting to be fed by owner Sarintip "Jazz" Singsanong and her eldest brother, Suthiporn "Tui" Sungkamee, the chef. Textiles and woodcarvings adorn the walls, along with a Simpsons' cartoon autographed with a big thank you from Matt Groening.
A foodie favorite
The list of southern Thai dishes tacked into the back of Jitlada's menu has made it a mecca for Thai food lovers, but for me, this is my go-to restaurant for comfort food. I don't get here often, but when I do it's a real treat. And one of the best things about the restaurant is letting Jazz feed us. Every time it's different.
When I stopped in recently, I thumbed to the back of the menu and was astonished to find that the list of specialties had somehow exploded into what looked like a preposterous number of dishes, listed in tiny, crowded type -- 126 to be exact.
Jazz, who seems to do everything -- answer the phone, clear tables, serve food, sometimes going back into the kitchen to cook a special dish from her village -- was sympathetic: "The menu is new, yes, but my brother has been working on it for two years!"
Reading through every dish's description and deciding what to order would take too long, so I did what I always do anyway: let Jazz choose.
She's a wonderful character, a mother, sister, girlfriend all rolled into one energetic package, proud of her restaurant, proud of her brother the chef, proud of the cooking from her region. Because this is not only southern Thai cooking, but also cooking from a particular place in southern Thailand, Pak Panang, the area where she and her 12 siblings grew up.
Sushi Nozawa may have its "trust me" sign, but at Jitlada you can definitely trust Jazz to deliver a soul-satisfying Thai meal as long as you stick to the southern Thai specialties and don't wander off onto the banal regular menu. Trust Jazz and you'll be feasting on the real deal -- regional cuisine as close to Thai home cooking as you're going to get in L.A.
If she doesn't know you, she'll be cautious at first, breaking out the well-known dishes, tamping down the firepower to see if you can take it. You can, but just make sure your water glass is filled at all times.
She may serve you a bowl of green-lipped New Zealand mussels steamed with lemon grass, chile, garlic, basil and kaffir lime. A green chile sauce comes on the side. I love these sorts of dishes that are soothing and stimulating at the same time.
Any Thai meal has to include a couple of salads, maybe the one featuring flash-fried watercress leaves with pale, crunchy fried onions, rosy shrimp, lemon and chiles. Or the refreshing mango salad with fresh coconut, shrimp, peanuts, cashews and a clear blast of heat.
So many choices
Jazz might send out a whole sea bass rubbed in fresh turmeric and deep-fried to crunchiness, then buried under a blanket of julienned mango and fried garlic. Or maybe it will be charcoal-grilled prawns split lengthwise and served in a brilliant crimson currywith a fiery green chile dipping sauce on the side.
That might be followed by one of the vibrant curries redolent of freshly ground spices and searing hot chile. It'll be served with plenty of sticky or regular rice, whichever you prefer, and a plate of cabbage or lettuce and sliced cucumbers and carrots on ice to cool down your tongue.
Sometimes her youngest waits tables. Sometimes the kitchen gets a little backed up.
The next time she sees you, she may be a little more bold, once she realizes you can take the heat and are seriously interested in Thai cuisine. That's when she'll head back to the kitchen and cook a couple of dishes herself, like a mama coaxing baby birds, bite by bite. That could be an astonishing raw blue crab salad with green papaya and lime, cooling and smacking hot at the same time, with that sea funk coming through the chile and lime. If she doesn't offer it herself, be sure to ask for the catfish salad, which is a toss of mango, red onion, handfuls of peanuts and cilantro and, on top, crunchy bits of fried catfish drenched in a sweet-tart-hot sauce.
I'm a big fan of the curries, especially the jungle curry, a melange of pork, tiny green eggplants, sataw beans ("smells stinky, but tastes so good," says Jazz) and green peppercorns on the stem, hot enough to send you racing out to the parking lot for a gulp of air.
There are somewhat gentler dishes as well, such as the lamb stir-fried with pumpkin or long beans and whole fried basil leaves, or pork belly in salt and curry sauce with beans and egg-sized green eggplant.
Dessert is usually sweet sticky rice with mango on top, or sometimes homemade custards steamed in banana leaves and cut into thick rounds. The desserts are sweet and good, the essence of comfort food.
In these troubled times, a dose of Jitlada's cooking and Jazz's mothering can go a long way to soothing the ragged spirit.
Jitlada RATING: ** LOCATION 5233 1/2 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 663-3104; www.jitlada.localthaifood.com. AMBIENCE Lively restaurant where Thais and local hipsters convene for the homey, southern Thai cooking of Suthiporn "Tui" Sungkamee and his sister Sarintip "Jazz" Singsanong. It's prettier than most, with colorful brocade tablecloths, wood carvings and a Matt Groening cartoon on the walls. SERVICE Warm and friendly, by the owner and her extended family. PRICE Appetizers, soups and salads, $4.95 to $12.95; main courses, $7.95 to $21.95; noodle dishes, $7.95 to $12.95; southern Thai dishes, $6.95 to $24.95. BEST DISHES Rice salad, mango salad with peanuts and deep-fried catfish, coconut mango salad with shrimp and cashews; steamed mussels in coconut milk and green curry; raw blue crab salad with green papaya; whole fried sea bass in turmeric spice rub; jungle curry with pork and green eggplant; basil lamb with long beans; stir-fried beef "salt and spicy" -- or whatever Jazz suggests for you, especially the dishes from her village. WINE LIST Very basic, most from Clos du Lac or Clos du Bois. Bring your own or go with Thai beer. BEST TABLE One in the front corner of the second dining room. DETAILS Open 5 to 10:30 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday to Sunday. Lot parking. All major credit cards. Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.