Expect the unexpected at Little Serow

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Last Day in Thailand Sunrise Over Rice Fields in Buri Ram. Photo by Kim Seng.

Little Serow

1511 17th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C.

www.littleserow.com

There are certain things you shouldn’t expect from Little Serow restaurant. Don’t expect to make a reservation — it’s walk-in dining only. Don’t expect a lot of glitz or fancy presentation. Don’t expect the servers to ask you how you like your spicy. In fact, don’t expect to have a choice, at all, in what you’re served.

And you know … I’m okay with that. Because the one thing you shouldn’t expect from Little Serow (rhymes with arrow) is a cookie-cutter Thai dining experience. Go somewhere else if you want to know what to expect. At Little Serow, your leap of faith is rewarded with a parade of small plates, each bursting with rich, powerful flavors.

In fact, after dining at the Washington, D.C. restaurant the other night, I’m wondering how soon would be too soon for a return visit — such is the first impression left by the restaurant’s fabulous fixed-price Thai menu.

Although Little Serow is tucked into a basement space in D.C.’s DuPont Circle neighborhood and is easily missed, it’s hardly a well-kept secret. Located beneath the popular Komi restaurant, which is owned by the same husband and wife team who own Little Serow, the Thai restaurant has been written up in the Washington Post Magazine and was named to Bon Appétit‘s “Hot 10 list” of America’s Best New Restaurants for 2012.

Neither chef Johnny Monis nor his wife, Anne Marler, are Thai, which makes their decision to concentrate on fiery northern and northeastern Thai cuisine open to second-guessing from purists. When asked about his Thai bona fides, Monis told Bon Appétit:

We never wanted to parachute in and claim that we’re experts. We’re not. We tried to approach this with a lot of humility—and hope that we’re doing these traditional dishes justice.

And while they may be humble, you can’t accuse them of being timid. Monis and Marler are hardly playing it safe with their approach. They offer a $45 per person fixed menu, which is posted on their website and changes by a few items each week. That means if you are someone who can’t handle the heat of a traditional northern Thai dish, you’re in for a long night and are probably better off dining elsewhere.

What makes Little Serow special? Start with the location; tucked below street level with no signage that I could see and you’ve got a place that feels like one of those hidden gems that only “insiders” know about. With seating for only 28, our server told us there’s almost always a lengthy wait, with people known to queue up before the restaurant opens its doors at 5:30 p.m.

The space is painted pastel green, sparsely decorated and dimly lit. There’s a hipster vibe, though in an unpretentious way. Marler and her staff work the floor as well as any restaurant crew in town. Sure, there are some high end restaurants where the staff is just as attentive but I can’t think of many where everyone is so friendly and helpful.

Our server turned us on to a pleasant Gewürztraminer, whose sweetness balanced the spice of our meal without being cloying.

The meal, itself, reminded me of an exhilarating symphony. It started slowly with a small plate of pork rinds served with a perky tamarind dipping sauce, building its way to a screaming crescendo in the form of a cubed catfish dish called “tom kha pla duka,” which  our server reassured us would be the hottest of the night. After that, we were eased off our precarious ledge of pleasure and pain with a soothing mushroom, pumpkin, basil dish called “phat het fuk thong” and, finally, a plate of mellow pork ribs that seemed to melt in our mouths. In addition, we were never lacking in sticky rice, cucumbers, radishes and lettuce to help dampen the heat.

And while the menu listed 7 different dishes, we were treated with at least three items not on the menu — a spicy tom yum soup as good as any I’ve ever had, cubes of sweet sticky rice for dessert and a craft IPA, which our waitress offered to us at just the right moment for use as a “fire extinguisher.” (With the poor light and in my semi-delirious state, I didn’t catch the brand. But it hit the spot.)

I’ve never been to Thailand, Laos or Burma, so I’m not sure how our meal would stack up to the genuine article, but I put Little Serow up there with my favorite Thai restaurant, Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, whose chef, Thai-born Saipin Chutima, won a 2011 James Beard award for Best Chef Southwest.

Little Serow isn’t for everyone, but if you’re up for an adventure, I’d highly recommend it. You might even learn there’s more to Thai cuisine than pad Thai and red chicken curry.

Dinner for two with a bottle of wine and 20 percent gratuity ran us $170.

Photo of sunrise in Buri Ram, Thailand by flickr user Kim Seng and is used her under a Creative Commons license.

Joe Newman

I'm Joe Newman, multi-media story teller, non-profit do-gooder, international street photographer, serious poker player, intrepid traveler. Bourbon drinker.

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