Little Serow must be 100% about its food, because the look of this small Thai restaurant is… well, it doesn’t look like anything, really. A sparse basement space with 28 seats, seafoam green walls (as described by my friend Leah), no decorations that I can recall, and a small semi-open kitchen at the back.
From the outside, it’d be easy to miss Little Serow completely. There’s no sign. Here’s Leah entering the restaurant. Or she could have been walking into her apartment; it’d be hard to know.
What gives it away that something special is going on down in that English basement is the crowd of people queueing on the sidewalk. Little Serow takes no reservations, and with only 28 seats, securing a seating time is an exercise in strategy. Luckily we had a plan for our Friday night. Leah bolted from work and got there before 5 pm, where a line of almost 20 had already formed. Jeez, what time do people get out of work??
By the time I rushed over there after 5:30, sweating and slightly frazzled, Leah had gotten us a seating time: 6:45 pm. Perfect! (I’ve read that people often don’t get in until an 8:30 or 10 pm seating).
A few drinks next door to get us primed, and by 6:45, we were ready to eat.
** As you’re about to see, I took some really crappy pictures of our meal. For one thing, the place is dark, and I never use flash in a restaurant. It feels super obnoxious. And two, I was under the impression that photos of any kind weren’t allowed in the restaurant. So I was frantically whipping out my phone whenever possible and taking the quickest pics I could manage without being spotted. Turns out photos are allowed, just not flash photography. Whoops.
This is where the fun begins. You don’t order off a menu at Little Serow; you eat what’s put in front of you. The flat $45 dinner consists of a tasting menu of seven dishes, which change weekly and are served one at a time. To fully enjoy the experience, a diner needs to have an open mind (picky eaters would fare poorly), and a tolerance for a fair amount of heat.
Here came the server with our first dish, an earthy mash of river weed and eggplant, to be scooped up with fried pork rinds.
The second and third courses: on the left, a cold broth/soup studded with shrimp, lime leaves and galangal. On the right, bamboo shoots and snakehead fish.
Snakehead fish need a better PR team — that is not an appealing name. They should take a cue from Patagonia toothfish, which were renamed to the more consumer friendly, Chilean sea bass.
We lingered on the cold broth throughout the night, which I think is the restaurant’s intention. It was served with unlimited baskets of sticky rice, that you balled up and dipped into the mild, herby liquid. More than a little addictive, and an antidote to the heat that was coming.
The beauty of dining at Little Serow is how it surprises and leads you in unexpected directions. Would I order a spicy dish of chicken livers and long peppers on my own? Probably not. But this turned out to be one of our favorites of the night. We ate it by picking up the liver with slices of cabbage, much like how injera is used at an Ethiopian restaurant.
Heat… ooh, the heat was building now. My taste buds were popping from spice and chicken liver intensity.
I should take a moment to mention the servers. They were fantastic. Several were rotating around (all women donning a retro look of old-fashioned vintage dresses), and they took turns bringing over our courses. Each server was informative, relaxed and enthusiastic. You got the sense that they were as interested in the food as we were and truly wanted us to enjoy the experience.
Moving on to course number five, bite sized chunks of crispy pork with crispy rice. Vibrant, fresh flavors with a touch of sour.
Bring the heat! Salted fish, egg and greens.
These pork ribs in mekhong whiskey and dill were moan-inducing good. A crackling crisp, charred crust encasing meltingly tender pork. I couldn’t get enough of these little ribs. They were heavenly.
Just when we thought we couldn’t eat another bite — oh, who am I kidding, dessert goes into a separate compartment — out came these lovely squares of mango and coconut sticky rice. Cue the sound of belt buckles being loosened.
There’s a lot of hype surrounding Little Serow, and I’d say it’s deserved. Despite the elevated caliber of food, the place is refreshingly unpretentious and low-key. Seats are at a premium, but never did we feel rushed. In fact, it was just the opposite. I think we were encouraged to savor and linger. And the food — not so much flashy, as a bold combination of ingredients, textures and flavors. How often do you experience a feeling of adventure in a restaurant? It’s exciting to venture into unfamiliar territory.
For all the exotic-ness of the dishes, there was a warm and comforting essence about each one. I could picture a grandmother in Thailand cooking all day and serving these up to her family. These were dishes I had never tasted before, and yet they still felt “home-style.”
I’m eagerly anticipating another trip to Little Serow for a whole new menu of seven dishes. The Thai taste buds have been awakened, and there’s no turning back now.
1511 17th St. NW