Ask anybody for recommendations on Thai food in Los Angeles, and you're sure to get Jitlada as a first or second answer. The Hollywood staple, known for its two-hour waits and steamed mussels with lemongrass broth, has made every local publication's "Best Of" restaurant list since Jazz and Tui Sungkamee bought the establishment in 2006.
So expectations were naturally high when two more Sungkamee siblings opened up a restaurant on the west side, employing a number of Southern Thai "family recipes" that look quite familiar: Crispy Morning Glory Salad, Crying Tiger Pork, Coco Mango Salad, and that same spicy Mussel Soup.
But as any good chef with tell you, an identical recipe does not guarantee identical results.
Start with the quality of ingredients. Stir-fries may seem like a great way for a home cook to use the vegetables that have been sitting in the back of the freezer for weeks, since the accompanying sauce usually covers up the "fresh" flavor of recently-picked produce. But there's still texture to be accounted for, and aged vegetables - like the thinly sliced carrots that are used in nearly every Emporium dish - are dead giveaways.
Then there's the preparation of meats. Featured on Food Network's "The Best Thing I Ever Ate," Jitlada's Crying Tiger Beef is thickly-sliced yet char-grilled to an expert tenderness. At its sister restaurant, the sirloin has chewy bits from lack of trimming and is thin enough that the brown sugar in the marinade takes front seat. Each protein suffers from varying levels of doneness, from dry chicken to shrimp so raw that you nearly expect its head to be served to you in a bowl of miso soup. The pork belly, though, featured in dry curry dishes like Pad Prik King, is perfectly fried and stir-fried to a tough but not quite crispy texture.
How are the noodles, you ask? Just as soggy as your average take-out order. The crispy salads? Crunchy from a too-thick tempura batter. So what makes this a 3-star restaurant?
Emporium's strong suit is an expert awareness of varying spices and how to best employ them. Southern Thai food is known for being bold and full-flavored, and the cuisine here is unafraid of packing a spicy punch (a “level 3” out of 10 had a few in my dining party sweating). And yet, while taste buds are burning and noses are running, the inherent flavors of the delicately-balanced spices has earned Emporium some fans. The Southern Curry’s alternating notes between jicama, turmeric, and coconut makes it one of the best in the area. Dipping sauces for meats might be better than their Jitlada counterparts, and any dish made with their red curry paste is worth ordering.
Is Emporium Thai Cuisine the Westwood equivalent of Jitlada? Far from it. But it’s a solid option for flavors of Southern Thailand on the other side of the 101.