If you're wandering down 17th Street NW in D.C. trying to find the signless Little Serow, just look for the enormous line—that starts forming at 4:30pm—leading to an ordinary old basement door. There were a number of reasons that Little Serow (sounds like arrow) was on my must-try list this last visit to our nation's capital: the chef-owner is Johnny Monis, who also owns the untouchable Komi next door. The food is authentic northern Thai food, something near and dear to my heart. Plus, both Gerard Craft and Nini Nguyen told me to go. I'm a good listener.
There are no reservations. You get there, get in line, then wait your turn. Once you make it inside, you'll be greeted by darkness and bright teal walls. You don't order anything besides drinks—it's a $45 set menu. You sit, it starts.
The chefs work in a small kitchen to the left, close enough where you can see them but far enough away that you probably won't go bother them. We were seated at the long white bar (which I recommend aiming for) and excitedly got things kicked off. The first dish out was the Nam Prik Thai Orn, a spicy chili sauce made with salted fish, shrimp paste, and green peppercorns.
There's a whole mess of nam prik varieties, including the roasted green chili nam prik noom you can find at Fork & Stix, all of which are meant to be eaten as either a condiment or a dipping sauce. It's like the funky Thai version of ranch dressing, in that sense.
The Thai Orn had a deep, peppery flavor with a mild hit of shrimp paste. Paired with the veggies—or, better yet, the pork rinds—it was a perfect start to the meal. It assured me that what we were eating was nothing but authentic, the kind of food you rarely see in the U.S.
Our next two courses, the Ma Hor (sour fruit, dried shrimp, pork) and Yam Makheua Yao (eggplant, cured duck egg, mint), arrived together. We dug into the sour fruit plate first, a wonderful mix of sour and sweet. Every bite of this took me back to eating near the beaches of Southeast Asia, sitting out in the the tropical weather.
The Yam Makheua Yao brought back a different set of memories. After my first forkful of smokey eggplant, my body lit on fire from the inside out. Flashes of a misunderstanding with a Thai food stall in Singapore flooded my mind. I had tried to ask for my Som Tom salad less spicy, but apparently all she heard was MORE spicy. The result was me abandoning my lunch in a hurry, running to Starbucks to get something milky to relieve me of the burning pain in my mouth.
I wasn't going to bail on Serow for Starbucks, but like an angel sent from on high, our waitress appeared and asked if we were interested in their sweetened rice milk to help us cool down. Never has a drink tasted so good. It was like a Thai horchata. We each ended up drinking 3 or 4 glasses of that sweet nectar of the gods.
Laap Pla Duk Chiang Mai is not the prettiest dish by any stretch of the imagination, but this catfish and galangal salad is a winner. If my tastebuds were correct, it's kind of like all Thai ingredients blended together with grilled fish. Lemongrass, chilies, galangal—it punches you in the face with flavor. You can eat it with your fork, or you can spread it over cabbage, sticky rice, or whatever vegetable you prefer.
The runner up for favorite dish of the night went to the Tow Hu Thouk, crispy tofu tossed with ginger and peanuts. It was a fantastic mix of crisp and creamy. We definitely could have eaten another one of these.
We didn't eat much of the Het Grapao, stir fried mushrooms with basil and egg. The flavors were good—it's a vegetarian version of of the basil chicken I'd get in Singapore—but at that point it felt too heavy, and the strong soy flavor was killing my tropical buzz.
The best came last. In fact, it was the best thing I ate the entire time I was in D.C. Si Krong Muu, pork ribs with Mekhong whiskey and dill. I was surprised to see dill in a Thai dish, but a quick Googling revealed that northeastern Thailand does, in fact, use dill fairly often. The flavor was unreal.
Seriously. This has to be in my 10 top favorite things I've eaten this year. We were so full by the time they came, but still managed to polish these off. The meat, finished with a nice char, fell right off the bone. Like so many Thai dishes, the flavor was all over—sweet, sour, charred, bitter, herbaceous—but it's absolutely perfect. I thought I preferred my ribs smoked and slathered in BBQ sauce, but it turns out I was wrong.
The meal came to a close with these tiny glutinous rice squares topped with coconut cream and toasted sesame seeds, a perfect final note for the evening.
If you're an Asian food lover, Little Serow should be at the top of your list of places to go. Sure, you'll probably be eating dinner at 5:00pm like an elderly person, but it's well worth the sacrifice.