Little Serow in Washington, D.C. will transport you to another world. That world defies expectations and requires you to sometimes eat with your hands. Just go with it — and don’t worry about whether you’re eating something the "right way." You won’t be disappointed.
As I entered the dimly lit basement that seats about 28 people, I was immediately struck by two things: the kitchen and the music. The kitchen is tiny and completely open. There’s no wall or physical barrier that blocks onlookers’ view of chef/owner Johnny Monis and his crew. The music, like the décor, is folksy, reminiscent of the soundtrack from the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou? It’s a stark contradiction to the restaurant’s Isaan-style cuisine.
Isaan cuisine hails from Northeastern Thailand and is somewhat distinct from what is commonly known in the States as Thai food. There’s more heat and less coconut milk, for starters. Little Serow offers only a prix fixe menu composed of about seven courses, which are served family-style ($45). Below I describe some of my favorites.
The meal started with duck liver mousse served with fried green banana chips and pork rinds. The unexpected flavor pairings worked well together and the dish was an excellent and telling primer for the rest of the meal.
The next few courses packed a whole lot of heat. I had to take a timeout after the catfish dish (Laap Pla Duk) because my entire head felt like it was on fire. If I were a cartoon character, I would have had smoke shooting out of my ears. Of course, I kept eating through the sweats because it tasted so good. I also quelled some of the heat by eating more of the sticky rice and fresh green vegetables that were brought to us at the beginning of the meal and remained on the table until the end. These accompaniments are meant to not only tame the heat, but also serve as vessels for scooping up food, in addition to, of course, your hands. Hands come in handy (ha!) when trying to extract the super sticky rice from its cute little straw container.
The tofu in the Nam Tok Tow Hu was so crispy and tasty that, for a while, I forgot I was eating tofu. The mint, lime juice, and peanuts balanced out the richness of the fried tofu.
The ground duck over noodles (Ped Grapao) was my favorite of favorites. It came with a fried duck egg (sunny-side up). Break the yolk and flip the egg over so the creamy yolk can ooze its way throughout the noodles. Delicious!
Excellent food aside, there are two more reasons I liked Little Serow. First, the staff plays an integral part in the experience. The staff is so welcoming, happy, and helpful. They instantly put patrons at ease — a very important quality as patrons embark on an exotic culinary adventure. Lastly, Little Serow is more accessible and affordable than Monis’ other restaurant Komi (next door to Little Serow), which is reserved for those very special of occasions and requires reservations a month ahead of time. While Little Serow does not accept reservations, the wait is manageable, especially when you can grab a few drinks at a nearby restaurant as you wait for Little Serow’s hostess to text you when a table becomes available.