On a Saturday night, customers arrive as early as 4:45 p.m. to secure a table at one of D.C.’s hottest (literally) restaurants. From the perspective of passersby, it must be a peculiar site – a line of fifty or so people, lined up nearly all the way to the CVS on the corner of 17th and P Street (here’s a blogger who snagged a photo – http://czdyer.blogspot.com/2012/03/little-serow.html).
When you finally make it to the front of the line, you will see a set of steps leading down to an unmarked door. Inside is Little Serow. The restaurant takes no reservations, but the long wait for a table in the tiny, 28-seat dining room is more than worth it.
Johnny Monis opened Little Serow nearly a year ago just a few doors down from his highly acclaimed restaurant, Komi. Little Serow describes its cuisine as “Family style…northern and northeastern Thai.”
Little Serow offers diners the chance to try Monis’ food at a price that is far more affordable than Komi. For $45 a person, customers can enjoy seven courses of varying spiciness. The menu is pre-selected and changes periodically.
Before dining at Little Serow last weekend, I had read warnings of the restaurant’s spicy reputation. I figured it couldn’t be that bad.
Oh, how wrong I was.
After arriving at Little Serow around 5:10 p.m., Paul and I made it to the front by 5:30 p.m. Inside, the hostess informed us that we would be able to be seated at 8:30 p.m. Paul looked at me and whispered, “Um, can we talk about this first?”
You know you have a good boyfriend when he agrees to wait three hours for a table.
I gave the hostess my phone number, and was promised a text when our table was ready. We could go anywhere we wanted in the meantime. We could have run errands, even gone home and taken a nap. I hope this catches on elsewhere. It makes way more sense than those stupid pagers that don’t let you go more than 10 feet from the restaurant.
We found a nearby bar with unbelievably cheap happy hour specials and set up camp. At 8:14 p.m., I received a very exciting text message. (I hope they appreciated my enthused response!)
You’d never think that Little Serow’s dining room is a basement. According to an article in Bon Appetit magazine, this space once belonged to a Dunkin’ Donuts.
The painted seafoam green brick walls and the solid, concrete floor come alive with low, dramatic lighting. A bar runs along the right side, while tables line the wall on the left. The open kitchen in the back of the dining room invites the diner to watch as their meals are prepared.
Silverware and a paper napkin arranged on top of what looked like a paper plate decorated the tabletop. I realized that this plate was actually ceramic, a subtle reminder of Little Serow’s unpretentious ambience.
A single candle on our table illuminated the night’s menu. Each course was written in Thai, with ingredients listed in English below.
Throughout the meal, our table would be fully stocked with two items: sticky white rice and a basket of vegetables and greens such as cucumbers, radishes and lettuce. Our server encouraged us to experiment with these accompaniments, using them as utensils or as remedies for our soon to be fiery palates.
Jeow mak len, or crispy pork rinds (which seem to be all the rage these days at fine-dining establishments), started our meal off with a crunch. These salty, light and airy little treats set a strong tone for the rest of the meal.
In the photo on the left, notice the two plates. One is the “paper” plate I mentioned earlier, and the other has a Thai-inspired floral decoration around the rim. Attention to detail is impressive here – everything at Little Serow, down to each and every plate, is chosen for a reason.
The next two courses, yam makeua and tom kha pla duk, arrived at the same time. The first, a salad of eggplant and salted duck egg quickly picked up the heat. The second, a soup of galangal, a close relative of ginger, chilies and catfish was a substantial notch above mild as well.
The sliced thick cucumbers and stunning watermelon radishes arranged in the basket next to me were starting to look very appealing.
Courses four and five marked the meal’s spicy climax. Laap chiang mai, or finely chopped pork combined with lemongrass and sawtooth (an herb likened to cilantro) was so flavorful that I forgot for a moment just how incredibly hot it was.
Fifth course Khao todd, described on the menu as “crispy rice, mint, peanuts,” sounds tame, but it is a fiery beast. My conclusion here is that anything, even mint leaves and peanuts, can be made dangerously spicy with the addition of hot chilies.
Before we knew it, Paul and I scarfed our way through three containers of rice and two vegetable baskets. Despite the heat, I had to finish each and every bite of these two courses. They were simply too delicious.
Our server must have sensed our quiet suffering. In the middle of course five, she said to us, “Are you hanging in there? Don’t worry, I know exactly what you need.” She soon reappeared holding a glass of white wine and an IPA, both of which she described as “perfect combatants to the heat.”
The next two courses were designed to extinguish the flames caused by the previous ones. Phat het fuk thong, thick juliennes of pumpkin mixed with basil had a subtle sweetness that was a welcomed relief from the spiciness.
Pictured above is the final course. Sii krong mu, pork ribs marinated with Mekhong (a Thai whiskey that tastes more like rum), amplified the sweetness introduced in the previous course. These little ribs were incredibly tender and best of all at this point, without a single hint of spice. Where the first course was mild and salty, this course was mild and sweet.
From start to finish, my experience at Little Serow had the makings of an exciting theatrical performance. Or even an action-packed film. In high school English class, I remember learning about Freitag’s Plot Pyramid (don’t ask me why it’s this that I remember). According to Freitag, a successful story follows this form.
Think about each course and where it fits into the pyramid. It works, right? The meal attracts the diner by starting off mild, but then the spice spreads like a wildfire across your palate. The last two dishes bring diners back to mild, but unlike the first dish, the diner has experienced the entire meal. The diner ends the meal with a feeling of completeness.
Who knows – maybe Johnny Monis paid attention in English class, too.