Stop grumbling about the line and follow the lead of some of your comrades outside Little Serow: Multitask while you’re waiting — fingers crossed, rabbit’s foot in hand — for a seat in the Thai treasure chest. The gal in front of me is sitting on a fold-out chair reading a book. The guy behind me is tapping away on a laptop harnessed to his shoulders. Both seem to know that gaining entry to the source of the hot and sour flavors of northeastern Thailand is worth the trouble. Duly noted, I think to myself as I count the number of bodies in front of me, knowing that fewer than 30 of us can be accommodated immediately once the doors open at 5:30 (and never a minute before). The menu varies from week to week, but among the recurring features are airy shrimp chips with a racy scoop of nam prik at the top of the hour and a cube of jackfruit custard along with the bill. The food is not for the faint. Tiny red chilies and Chinese ginger inflame a galangal soup with ringlets of squid, and shredded catfish stars in an intense salad that’s tackled with cabbage scoops. Nowhere else do toasted peanuts, fried tofu, cilantro root and a garden of herbs make as compelling a tropical salad as they do in this dim underground hideaway. Engaging servers dressed in frocks that channel Laura Ingalls Wilder serve as interpreters throughout the seven- (or so) course meal. “Here’s a little break from the heat,” a guide says as she deposits a bowl of plump oysters, crisp bean sprouts and shredded egg, stirred together at the table with a zippy, house-made “shark sauce.” (Picture an omelet by way of Thailand.) “We’ll bring you as many napkins as you need,” another says after she encourages us to use our fingers to eat pork ribs fueled with Mekhong whiskey and dill. Sorry, the kitchen doesn’t make substitutions or acknowledge food allergies. Little Serow, from Komi chef Johnny Monis, marches to the beat of its own drum. It’s a beat, and a heat, I don’t mind waiting for.
2013 Fall Dining Guide
By Tom Sietsema
October 10, 2013
"I don't like to stand in line, I don't care for spicy food, I hate restaurants that don't take reservations," says my fussy friend as we exit a hot spot that would seem to push all her buttons. "Little Serow is my favorite restaurant," she adds in the next breath.
While the underground dining room specializing in the hot, sour and herby notes of northeastern Thailand doesn't make exceptions for anybody -- the kitchen offers only a seven-course, family-style menu (no substitutions, nuts and meat included) -- the payoff is some of the most mind-blowing eating anywhere. Regulars who start lining up an hour before the doors open rhapsodize about fiery minced chicken liver scooped up with cool cabbage leaves and smoky pork ribs, succulent from brushes with Mekhong whiskey and fresh dill. Fresh reasons to return to the votive-lit green cave include tropical fruit cubes lined up in a row and piped with a funky mince of pork and peanuts, and stir-fried mushrooms, fresh chilies and holy basil crowned with a fried egg that when pierced becomes its dressing.
Bottom line: The $45 feast seasoned with dried shrimp, cashews, pig's ear, cilantro, lime juice -- more fireworks than the Fourth on the Mall -- is one you aren't likely to forget. If my friend doesn't like the restrictions, why is she so enamored of the 28-seat restaurant where bluegrass segues to something rockier as the night wears on?
Because Little Serow is the handiwork of Johnny Monis, chef of the four-star Komi next door, and tended to by some of the sweetest and smartest staff anywhere. "I feel like I'm eating in their home!" my friend sings.