Sunday, November 16, 2014

Emporium Thai Cuisine: Southern Thai for the Westside

In recent years, Jitlada has shot to fame as the dining destination for authentic southern thai in L.A. - introducing a whole new world of much spicier (and much more exciting) fare to the limited mainstream palate that had thus far only gotten acquainted with the reliable rotations of northern thai dishes like pad thai, satays, papaya salad and pineapple fried rice.

That said, I have to admit that I had yet to make it out to the restaurant: as someone who doesn't normally eat very spicy to begin with, I wasn't sure that I could handle dishes that built its fame primarily from the levels of scorching heat.  And conceptually, it was hard for me to understand how beyond a certain point of taste buds being on fire, how I would possibly be able to savor any flavor beyond 'burn'.

So, I was excited when I received an invite to check out Emporium Thai Cuisine: the restaurant that served southern thai to Westsiders, long before Jitlada.  For the last twelve years, in fact. Say what you will about asian food on the Westside, Emporium Thai did seem to promise authenticity in preparation and flavor, with an eye to making the cuisine more accessible via options to customize the level of spice.

And I loved the story behind it all as well: Emporium Thai is now owned by John Sungkamee, youngest brother to the chef co-owners of Jitlada: one of twelve siblings in a family blessed with talent and passion for bringing a taste of home to LA.  (Jitlada is helmed by the eldest and third eldest siblings).  They take pride in serving the freshest and best.  Their 86 year old mom, who ignited this fire within her children to serve and share their culture, can be seen most nights in a corner of one of the restaurant, quietly enjoying the reactions of diners.

The tasting started with Seafood Hor Mok ($12.95) shrimp, crab and scallop baked with chili, coconut and Thai basils.  I loved the fun presentation with this dish - which to me seemed inspired by both Spanish tapas in terms of being featured small bites style, and French cuisine in the escargot-like dishware, and delicious bites revealed under a 'shell' (ceramic vs. organic).  Beyond looks, it was also delicious and very skillfully balanced, with beautiful, fresh, generous bites of seafood in a sauce that is creamy and sweet from coconut, herbaceous from the basil, and punctuated by a bit of spice from chili (at a pleasant level that makes its presence know and cuts through the creaminess, without overpowering every other ingredient).

That salads are not my favorite thing in the world to eat, would be an understatement.  Though I do love fruit over veggies, even fruit salads are usually something that I would only choose on a 'need to eat' basis (because they are typically uninspired, with blocks of flavorless chunks of garden variety fruit).  All that changed when the Coco Mango Salad with Shrimp ($12.95) arrived - with its shredded raw mango mixed with dried coconut, fresh chili, lime juice and shrimp.   The mango was just the perfect level of ripeness, succulent and sweet, yet still structured.  The dried coconut reminded me in texture of dried scallop, and added to the fresh chili, made it taste reminiscent of XO sauce - and this cut through the mango nicely.  Add to that the soft, juicy tender crunch of the freshest, plump pieces of shrimp, counterbalanced by the crisper crunch of peanuts, made this possibly the most boldly flavored, exciting and fun to eat fruit salad in memory.  I would definitely go back for this dish.

When my server Honeybee (owner John's niece) recommended Crying Tiger Beef ($12.95) - I was a bit apprehensious.  I had tried a sample of the same-named dish from Jitlada at a previous food event, and had to down several bottles of water to extinguish the fire in my mouth, from just one single bite. So when the name came up again at Emporium Thai, I was afraid that it would also end in tears.  But Honeybee reassured me that they would adjust the heat level - and that I would love it.  For spicy dishes, Emporium allows you to choose the level of heat from 1 to 10, ten being the spiciest.  The heat level she recommended, and that I tried, was "4".

And Honeybee was right on all fronts: the Thai-style chargrilled beef, marinated with homemade chili sauce - was flavor packed, but was more like the concentrated intensity of jerky, applied to fresh juicy tender pieces of beef - and I loved it.  The heat was there, but it enhanced the flavors rather than exterminating all hope of taste for anything to come after.  Honeybee suggested I eat this with the coco mango salad as well, as another way to balance the heat and add sweetness - this too worked very well as she said.  For those who aren't into red meat, this dish can also be made with pork instead.  

The last main dish was a personal one for John and his family - one that is an original recipe passed down over 30 years, and made with the freshest ingredients found in their yard back in Pakpanang, Nakhon Sri Thammarat Thailand.   Southern Curry Chicken ($11.95) - was made with jicama, basil, bell pepper, served with  side of jasmine rice. Enthralled with the story behind the dish, I really wanted this to be my favorite, but I found the chicken a bit on the dry side and wanted to get more interplay of flavor in the dish.  You can also get this curry with lamb or shrimp, which I may try to give this another shot on my next visit (and there's also a version with crispy pork, which is less stew-like).  The heat level I got was 3 - and I think I'm surprising myself by saying that if I try this again I may venture to crank it up to 4.
For dessert: where most Thai restaurants in LA may stick to the tried and true mango with sticky rice, Emporium also offers up Thai Donuts ($6) served with a side of condensed milk and chopped peanut.  Served fresh fried to order, piping hot with an instantly addictive crispy gorgeous golden brown crust and sweet, super airy and flaky interior - and dipped in the spreadable, sweet condensed milk with a bit of counterbalancing crunch from chopped peanuts - these were little bites of heaven.  Weeks later, I still dream of these beauties, and need to plan a return visit soon, just for them (and the coco mango salad - yep, it's all about balance). 

Definitely a great option for lunch or dinner for those on the Westside, for BOTH adventurous / heat seekers, AND for those who might want to proceed more cautiously to expand their experience with southern Thai cuisine.  Emporium Thai Cuisine found a way to serve both, and the Westside is all the better for it.  Can't wait to go back soon!

*Disclaimer: This meal was hosted.


Emporium Thai Cuisine

1275 Westwood Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90024
Ph: 310.478.2838


Emporium Thai Cuisine on Urbanspoon

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