When we left DC a year and a half ago, it was a very different place in one specific regard: there was nowhere to get authentic Thai. I'm not so sure we even knew what authentic Thai cuisine was until we moved to LA and found ourselves in a wonderland of bold, spicy regional Thai flavors. Since then, Johnny Monis has introduced the District to Little Serow.
The Asian baby sister of Monis’ highly-lauded (and much beloved by us) Komi in Dupont Circle, Little Serow opened to high expectations this January. The tiny, 28-seat basement establishment located behind the non-descript door pictured below belonged to a Dunkin Donuts when I lived there. My Dunkin Donuts, in fact, located about 50 yards from my front door. They knew me by name (but called me "sweetheart") and exactly how I took my coffee. As much as I miss it, I'm fully on board with the upgrade.
The restaurant stokes its own hype by adopting a first-come, first-serve policy; while the place opens at 5:30 pm, on any given day you will find a substantial line forming by 5:00. Some might find the demand surprising, as $45 a person for seven dishes might seem steep for Thai food. Understandable thought, but completely wrong. For food this good, $45 is a steal.
Inside, we found tables and counter seating. Nothing big enough to serve a party larger than four. The walls are are finished in a soft green. Servers are dressed in simple prairie dresses, and a country-western playlist wants to transport you to another time and place. This is like nothing else in DC.
The first thing our server does is adorn the tiny table with a beautiful basket of produce: slices of cucumber and Thai eggplant, leaves of romaine, cabbage, Thai basil and gorgeous red endive are meant to serve as cool, crunchy accompaniments to the oft spicy dishes to follow. A round, woven container of warm sticky rice is similarly useful in providing a base for the heat to come. Throughout the meal, the serving staff is happy to refill both, and to offer a nice selection of wine and beer. We both spring for the Bell Two-Hearted Ale, a Michigan brewery that we don't see in Los Angeles too often.
Before the spice parade, an incredible snack of nam prik kai kem. Light as air pork rinds function as a delicious carrying vessel for a salty, sour dipping sauce of fish sauce augmented with shrimp paste, green mango, and shreds of salted duck egg.
The next dish, ma hor (“galloping horse”) is a wonderful example of Northern Thai cuisine, combining slightly pungent minced Issan pork sausage with sweet pineapple and bright, sour citrus, and topping it off with crunchy dried prawns. A unique blend of flavors and textures that you won’t find at any other Thai restaurant in the city.
And here’s where the spice steps in. The yum talay (seafood salad) is light and refreshing with juicy bits of shrimp and scallop tossed with fish sauce, cilantro, bright notes of lemongrass and slivers of onion. It is also burn-your-mouth, gasp-for-water hot. Shockingly hot, in fact, particularly in a city that had previously never presented anything to challenge our spice muscles.
The spice level with the laap mueang (minced meat ‘salad’) takes a tiny half step down from the previous dish, but ratchets up the complexity: minced pork is tossed with thin rounds of Thai chili, sawtooth (a.k.a. Thai coriander), crispy shallots and 15 different spices, and lots and lots of dill (readily available in the Issan region of Thailand bordering on Laos). It is absolutely fantastic eaten with crunchy, slightly bitter cabbage leaves.
The nam tak tow hu is one of the best tofu preparations we’ve ever come across: cubes of tofu are heavily fried, taking on a really meaty texture and flavor that pairs to great effect with the peanuts, the refreshing cilantro and mint and, oh, yes, the considerable heat from the chiles.
The khao poon (a spicy soup popular in Laos) with catfish, bean sprouts, and stinging nettles, is the one slightly divisive dish of the night. Simple, with a focus on sour and pungent flavors, I found the flavors clean and lovely, while it was not necessarily Mark's cup of tea. I contentedly finished most of it off by myself.
The final dish of the night brings us back together, though. The si krong muu, or soured pork ribs, are really great: succulent, fall-off-the-bone pork drenched with a sauce of sweet Mekhong whiskey and topped with onions and dill.
To send us off with a sweet taste in our mouths, we finish the meal off with a tiny treat: a cube of sticky rice topped with rich coconut cream and salted sesame.
We are incredibly lucky that we don't have to travel cross-country for our Northern Thai fix, as we have some of the best Thai food mere miles from our apartment. But, for DC? Little Serow is an absolute revelation, presenting the city with something new, exciting and phenomenal.
Just a quick recap to make your Little Serow visit more enjoyable:
- Get there very early (by 5 pm) with a complete party or plan on waiting. If the latter is the case, they'll take your cell number and will call you when your table is ready.
- Be prepared for the spiciest food in DC. No joke. We're spice pros and our lips were burning.
- There are no substitutions. If you don't eat meat, if you don't do shellfish or pork, if you can't handle spice, etc., this is not the place. The set menu is made in batches in the kitchen. They will not make accomodations for you.
- Photography - unlike at Komi - is allowed, but we asked first and agreed to not use a flash.