Throughout the month of May – also known as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month – the Rams will be spotlighting four Certified #RamsHouse small businesses that belong to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. The series concludes with Jitlada.
LOS ANGELES – Jitlada owner Sarintip "Jazz" Singsanong's Instagram is filled with lots of pictures of food, and for a good reason.
"I love to cook, and I cook with love," she said.
"I love to cook, and I cook with love."
Going on 15 years now, serving authentic Southern Thai cuisine has been a labor of just that for Singsanong at her restaurant in Thai Town in East Hollywood.
Singsanong's path to restaurant ownership began back in April of 1979, when she moved to Los Angeles with just "one suitcase and just $200." After arriving, she began taking ESL (english as a second language) classes at Los Angeles City College and eventually landed a job at the Biltmore Hotel, where she said she worked for 10 years.
In the early 1990s, Singsanong – one of 12 children – gradually began bringing her family over to the United States, including a brother, the late chef Suthiporn "Tui" Sungkamee, who owned restaurants in Thailand before moving to the U.S.
Jitlada, meanwhile, has been around since the late 1970s. According to a July 2008 Gourmet Magazine article, its original owners sold the restaurant in the late 90s and moved back to Thailand. Singsanong and Sungkamee took over as its new owners in 2006 and began introducing Southern Thai dishes to its menu, written in its regional dialect. Sungkamee, who first began learning how to cook at age 5, made everything fresh and with only the best ingredients.
Sungkamee died of lung cancer in October 2017 at the age of 66, but Jazz has continued running the restaurant to honor her brother. His memory is also kept alive through multiple portraits of him on the restaurant's walls as well as his daughter, chef Sugar Sungkamee, working in partnership with Jazz by helping cook the food.
"This is the dream of my brother," Singsanong said. "He loved to cook."
"This is the dream of my brother. He loved to cook."
Not long after the restaurant opened under Tui and Jazz's ownership, a visitor from Chicago who could read Thai came in to try their food. When he returned home, he posted a translation the Southern Thai menu, plus photos of multiple dishes, on an online forum for Chicago food lovers.
The popularity of the restaurant took off from there.
Customers started coming in with translated versions of the regional menu. The late Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold of LA Weekly stopped by, further increasing Jitlada's visibility in the city. In recent years, it has been featured on Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" on The Food Network and the episode of Jon Favreau and Roy Choi's Netflix cooking show "The Chef Show" which paying paid tribute to Gold's life. Jitlada was also highlighted in "City of Gold," director Laura Gabbert's 2015 documentary on Gold's life. As recently as last December, Esquire Magazine named it one of 100 Restaurants America can't afford to lose due to the pandemic.
"Every (was) table (filled) with food."
"The maximum people came here because of the documentary," Jazz said. "I was packed full for a month, no seats at all. Every (was) table (filled) with food. And the second one that brought the same thing was (the) Netflix show. (In) 2019, you had to wait two hours to get in."
Jazz loves to share her food and treat her customers like family because it goes back into the values she was raised in.
In Thai culture especially, she said religion teaches you the importance of karma: Intentional actions have future consequences; good actions produce positive experiences, bad actions produce negative experiences. When she was a child, her father would take the older children to the market with him and have them cook for the younger children, teaching the importance of sharing as well as helping others. According to a May 2018 lataco.com article, Tui and Jazz were oldest and third-oldest respectively among their siblings, so they were taught those values early on.
In a similar vein, as Los Angeles and cities throughout the United States deal with a rise in Anti-Asian Hate Crimes, Jazz goes back to karma when discussing how to combat those crimes and better support the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community.
"You hurt someone, someone is going to come back and hurt you," Jazz said. "You give to someone, somebody else is going to come back and give to you. Try to give love, give care, give a hand, because it's a small world."
Address: 5233 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027