Lunch with Jazz: Jitlada's Sarintip Singsanong Talks About Chiles, Oyster Sauce & the Importance of Giving Back
Walk through the colorful doors of Jitlada Thai Restaurant, in the back of a cluttered strip mall off Hollywood Boulevard in Thai Town, and you feel like you've stumbled into someone's living room as much as a restaurant. Which, in a sense, you have. Sarintip Singsanong, known as Jazz, runs the restaurant with her brother, Suthiporn Sungkamee, who is the chef--and much of the rest of their large extended family. When we sat down for lunch with Singsanong on a recent afternoon, her daughter chatted with customers; her sister-in-law called to her in Thai from the kitchen.
Singsanong likes to tell the story of how she came to Los Angeles in 1979, "with one suitcase and $200." Singsanong's hometown is Pak Panang, in southern Thailand, where she lived with 12 siblings, most of whom now live in Los Angeles and are involved in some way with the restaurant. Sitting in her restaurant, which is papered with accolades from various food magazines and newspapers--including Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, and many from this publication--and cartoons drawn by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, a longtime Jitlada regular, Singsanong seems both happy and surprised by her success. Turn the page for more on Thai chiles and Singsanong's take on Southern Thai cooking. And check back later for her recipe for Thai beef salad.
A. Scattergood Sarintip Singsanong at Jitlada
anong shouldn't be surprised. The Southern Thai cooking at Jitlada is considered the best in Los Angeles. "This is the only Southern Thai restaurant here," says Singsanong, who explains that curries are the focus of Jitlada's cooking. "No restaurants make the fresh curries. Here we make fresh curry. Red, green. That's how I got into the Food Network. They came and tasted every curry. Fresh curry you can taste."
A. Scattergood Matt Groening's Jitlada artwork
For Singsanong, it's all about the ingredients, and it's these fresh ingredients that distinguish her cooking. "In the south, everybody grows the ingredients in the back yard. Every time I make curry, I have to run to the back yard. When I came to America, I had every single thing growing there." Among the things Singsanong grows are kaffir lime trees, galangal and lemongrass--lots of lemongrass. These all go into the dishes, particularly the curries. So does turmeric ("every curry has turmeric, every single curry") and fresh chiles, which are crucial to Jitlada's cuisine and one of the things that distinguish, according to Singsanong, Southern from Northern Thai cooking. "The northern food in Thailand is very mild. They burn the chiles, but they peel out the seeds," she says, explaining that the custom is to wrap the chiles in banana leaves and roast them on charcoal. "Some people dry them, but the old way is to burn them."
Another of Singsanong's favorite ingredients? Oyster sauce. "I make everything with oyster sauce. Not too much, but it's the secret. If you have one jar of oyster sauce in your house, American food will taste much better."
Other than making Thai food taste much better, Singsanong has been working on other projects in the years since she and her family took over Jitlada in 2006 (Jitlada was the name of the previous restaurant as well; Singsanong kept the name). Now that her two children are older, she's been saving money to send back to Thailand. The night before we spoke with her, she'd sent $3,000 to fix the temple in her hometown and to buy computers for the local school. Singsanong, a Buddhist, believes in the concept of paying it forward ("I think if I don't make it, I'll write a letter to Oprah!") and says that she sees a direct correlation between the money she sends home and the number of people who come to the restaurant. Maybe so. It doesn't hurt that her food is some of the best in the city.
Jitlada Thai Restaurant: 5233½ Sunset Blvd., Hollywood; (323) 667-9809. You can follow Jitlada on Twitter @jitladaLA.