Fish kidney curry at Jitlada Thai Restaurant
Hollywood (Los Angeles), California
Death in a bowl - fish kidney curry
You could drive past Jitlada several times before you find it, tucked into the elbow of a diminutive strip mall in an unsavory and otherwise unremarkable stretch of Sunset Boulevard. Unfortunately there's no lava floe or cinder cones to alert you to the fact that you've just pulled up to the portal to the realm of Hades on the river Phlegethon; oh, sure, it looks innocent enough - but once you take in the unmistakable aroma of brimstone, you know you've arrived. The building's façade features two yellow signs, one which reads, "Jitlada Restaurant Thai Cuisine" and the other in Thai reading, "Not responsible for third degree burns". A friend from Austin wanted to meet for dinner and have Thai food close to where he was staying; I suggested Jitlada since I'd heard positive feedback from survivors who had returned from their incendiary lunches and dinners to recommend it with what was left of their blistered tongues.
The Sultan of Hot, Hollywood's Jitlada Restaurant
A neon sign in the front windows advertises "Real Chilis Real Spicy" and like Smokey the Bear, you'd best heed this PSA. The menu is somewhat substantial and I was pleased to see selections I didn't recognize either by name or ingredients; naturally I gravitated towards the kaeng phûung plaa kûng sàp (fish kidney curry). We started with the Shrimp in Golden Thread (although to me it seemed more like shrimp in golden string); this odd little basket of crustacean takes a decent-sized shelled shrimp and weaves golden noodles around it in a loose cocoon that imprisons it while it is fried to a crackly crunch. The dish is somewhat of an enigma in that the noodles are fried and crispy, yet the entombed shrimp inside is precisely cooked (not white and cold, nor charred). The only drawback to biting into this mouse-sized shrimp nest is that the noodles are so crunchy that they disintegrate all over the plate, leaving you with a shrimp and a few defiant strands of noodles.
A perfectly cooked shrimp entwined in golden noodles
I was instantly "whited" when ordering the fish kidney curry; I was asked if I wanted it milder (with coconut milk) and warned that it is extremely spicy, and like an idiot wanted the traditional preparation and told her to bring the heat. As the food was brought to the table, I briefly envisioned the bowl being set down with insulated tongs by service staff in a flame-retardant hazmat suit, but there it was, the square bowl of thick, roux-like lava chock full of exotic vegetables such as bamboo and Thai Green eggplant and partially dissolved bits of shrimp and fish half-submerged in the caustic brew like the Terminator robot. I fished around in the curry for fish kidneys but could find no such animal; apparently my penchant for offal was thwarted by a menu translation faux pas. Before muting the incendiary stew with rice I navigated an eggplant quarter and chunk of shrimp onto the spoon and carefully placed it in my mouth. I thoroughly relished the blend of curry and spices and the thick, hearty texture of the sauce, contrasted with the firm flesh of the eggplant, just prior to the immolation of the inside of my mouth. The pain spread down my throat, rendering speech futile, and yet through the agony the rich, almost erotic flavor of the sauce was not only pleasant, but amplified.
Fire and brimstone delivered to you through the portal to hell in back
I imagine the milquetoast version would have had a completely different flavor, and although it may have spared me from going down, down, down in a burning ring of fire for the following two days, I have no regrets ordering the nuclear version (in fact, I took the uneaten portion home in its convenient asbestos-lined container to finish for lunch the following day). Jitlada is legendary for turning the flame up to eleven but I'm not sure where the fish kidney curry sits on the Scoville scale in comparison to their other dishes. The restaurant is divided into two dining rooms, and we had opted to situate ourselves several tables from the open kitchen doorway in the room to the left. Midway through dining I began coughing and my eyes began stinging; I initially thought I was ingesting the fumes from my order, but there seemed to be an invisible cloud of tear gas emanating from the kitchen. I have no idea what some poor bastard ordered that was being concocted in Hell's Kitchen, but if it had that effect on me in the other room, that diner was in for a special treat and a midnight trip to the emergency room.
I would seriously caution anyone who takes issue with spicy food to avoid Jitlada like the plague; however, if you're like me and have a difficult time discerning the fine line between pleasure and pain, I can personally vouch for the fish kidney curry as a fine selection for masochistic dining ecstasy. If you're looking for a second opinion, Satan gives it four stars.
Jitlada Thai Restaurant
5233 W. Sunset Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90027
GPS Coordinates: 34° 5'54.52"N 118°18'14.75"W