Since 2006, when Sarintip “Jazz” Singsanong and her brother, Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee took over Jitlada, it has become more than just another restaurant in Thaitown. Tui brought the Southern Thai cooking of his hometown to LA, along with its intense heat. Jazz always makes her customers feel more like old friends–even family–with her easy affection and enthusiasm. When you walk into Jitlada, you feel as if you were the one Jazz had been waiting for all day. Tui, although somewhat more reserved, always had a ready smile, and he was extremely kind. He did not just cook food; he fed people, and there is a difference.
Last year the Los Angeles restaurant community mourned the loss of Tui Sungkamee to lung cancer at the age of 66. As a part of the LA Times’ Food Bowl, the community came together on Tuesday to honor him in perhaps the most appropriate way possible–with dazzling, scorching hot food. Some people had created their own pins and T-shirts adorned with a caricature of Tui. Perhaps he will become our next cultural icon. Are you listening, Shepard Fairey?
I was most impressed with Kanom Jin Nahm Ya (Fish and Wild Ginger Sauce with Kanom Jin Noodles) from EP & LP and Khanom Jiin Naam Yaa Kathi (Spicy Turmeric Coconut “Gravy” with ground Fish and Crab served over Rice Vermicelli) from Pok Pok. Both dishes layered subtle and intense flavors to achieve an exquisite depth and complexity.
The highest dish on the Scoville scale for me was from Night + Market, who got creative, using pastrami from Langers in place of the pork toro in their fried rice. The hand-drawn flames on the menu did not lie. Pork Labb and Priking Chicken from Vim Thai was right up there in the burn-my-lips-right-off-my-face category. Roy Choi’s flaming hot chicken was no slouch either. The Bellwether served Spiced Caramel-Braised Pork, Cucumber and Peanut Sambal, with Rice Noodles, and Jet Tila served a milder rice dish, Khao Yum, (Jasmine Rice salad with Lemongrass, Mango, Coconut and Chili).
Not to be outdone, Jitlada served a spicy tofu dish, although it was not as spicy as the chicken they usually serve at these things. Cassell’s was inspired by Jazz’s off-the-menu burger to create the bunless “sweaty, hot and happy burger.” To cool us off, Jitlada mercifully provided us with Mango and Sticky Rice. My new frozen favorite, Wanderlust, brought a Mango and Sticky Rice Ice Cream as well as a Thai Iced Tea ice cream that quickly cooled everything down, but not before the chiles fogged up my companion’s glasses.
Near the end of the evening, there was a presentation to honor Tui. Jonathan Gold took the podium and gave a short history of Jitlada and discussed Tui’s devotion to regional cuisine.
“Tui would love it when you would try a new dish or some new seafood item he had managed to get, or some herb that one of his friends had managed to smuggle in from Thailand,” said Gold. “He cooked the food that he liked to eat. Luckily, we liked to eat it too. There is an entire generation of chefs in Los Angeles–most of them aren’t even Thai–whose success is almost unthinkable without Tui’s example … [Tui] in his quiet, steadfast way, taught each of us that it was OK to challenge ourselves, that we could dive into flavors, and scents and aromas, and textures never before imagined … and we’d all come out OK on the other side …”
Next, Matt Groening reminisced about his early visits to Jitlada.
“My first time at Jitlada was…I don’t know, 15 or 20 years ago, and I loved the food so much that I drew a picture of Homer Simpson on the bill saying, ‘Mmm…Jitlada,’ And when I came back to the restaurant a week later, they had taken that drawing and had blown it up and put it on the wall…” Groening continued, “When I found out about this event, I knew I had to do my own tribute to Tui, and so…”
At this moment he revealed an 18′ x 24″ drawing he had made of Tui that made the entire room gasp.
The evening closed out with Thai Elvis, which was very exciting because many of us have not seen him since he performed at Thailand Plaza in the late 80s. Matt Groening also donated three smaller drawings of Simpson’s characters to be auctioned off along with experiences like dinner with Jonathan Gold, Roy Choi or Jet Tila, as well as gift baskets from various restaurants. To bid and raise money for The American Cancer Society, click on this link.