L.A. Kinda Rules, Part Two

The crush gets deeper at a Thai restaurant next to an Armenian neighborhood.

When I realized that I was starting to love L.A., part of me readied dutifully to cluck-cluck about the exhaust-blowing traffic. But you know what? You may have to drive everywhere, but once you stop the car you’re in the thick of it, among people and businesses from the farthest-flung places. L.A.’s diversity and density are damned exciting. You can be in Little Tokyo one minute, go down to Koreatown, break a right into Hollywood, go through Little Armenia, and find yourself in Thai Town.

I love my handful of favorite Thai restaurants back home, but we have no Thai Town in New York; we have no mad crash of regional and personal Thai styles and a demanding market of people who insist on things tasting right. We have no Jitlada.

Jitlada is hardly a hidden treasure. Colman Andrews wrote about it in last July’s Gourmet, and before that, Robert Pincus played the postmodern hero and wrote for the Internet about how this place got written about all over the Internet.

So I was a little surprised to find the place nearly empty, but the quietness allowed my friends and I to listen to the owner, Jazz, as she hopped from table to table, wearing a wide smile and an unsustainable quantity of makeup, pushing the pork belly and performing a catalog of ooooohs and mmmmms.

She got to us, and even with her standing right next to me I couldn’t tell if she was actually big or if she only seemed so because her voice sounded like it was coming out of a drum. We hadn’t opened our menus yet, but she had come with advice. “Do you eat pork belly?” she asked, and without waiting blurted, “You’ve got to get the 142!”

We looked for it, but the menu stops at a mere 126. One hundred twenty-six, that is, just on the special southern Thai section, which takes up the only last two pages of the menu.

“That menu is new,” she shrugged. “Maybe the printer didn’t fit it on the page. We have too many items!” She made lip-smacking noises, unconcerned that, at a minimum, 16 new dishes would never be ordered from her kitchen because of a printer mishap. “But you have to get the 142! It’s SO GOOD.” She rolled her eyes back and smiled hugely. We agreed and also pointed to a couple of other dishes with photos on the walls, and out came the 142, thin slices of pork belly stir-fried with southern curry, sator beans, and chiles; battered soft-shell crabs in curry creamed up with coconut milk; brothy mussels roughly the size of my forearm; a rice salad and a big bowl of carrot and cucumber slices nestled in ice chips to cool our lips.

Jazz came by to inspect the damage we were doing to the pork belly, or, given the disappearance of those carrot slices, the damage it was doing to us. “Isn’t it good? What do you think? Isn’t it GOOD?” She sounded like she was going to start singing about it, and, charmed, I offered her a seat to enjoy it with us. She declined, saying, “Oh, no. We’ve had it on the menu for four days, and I can’t stop eating it. I have to stop. I keep saying, ‘Oh, but I have high cholesterol!’” She refilled our water and left to chat with another customer, a man who’d been telling her about growing up in Memphis. As she left us, she muttered, “But I don’t know why it’s so good.”

I wondered that, too, but about all the other food, too. Thai basil, lime, garlic, fish sauce—all the classic flavors of the Thai kitchen were on display on my table, flavors I knew, but rarely so explosively. We panted as we ate, ostensibly because of the chile heat, but also because we weren’t pausing to breathe between bites.

From the other table, I heard Jazz’s barrel-like voice. “Oh, I love biscuit! I always have to have biscuit when I get deep-fried chicken!”

We finished eating and caught our breaths. Jazz chatted with one of my friends, and figured out that I’m not from around there. She whipped out a guest book, opened it a hundred pages in, and asked me to sign it. I looked at the pages of that book, and thought about the man from Memphis coming here, and me, a Chinese dude from New York. And then I thought about my friends, Vietnamese Angelenos, and the Armenian woman at the table next to ours, and the marvelous number of ethnicities that Jazz’s customers must represent.

As we left, I noticed a sign by the register that read, “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” That “anyone” could really mean anyone, but I don’t imagine she’s ever made good on that threat.

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