This restaurant is in Tom Sietsema’s inaugural Hall of Fame.
Food scribes from out of town tell me they’re baffled by the number of hot spots in Washington that don’t take reservations. Invariably, after they visit, they understand why people wait in line, sometimes for hours: The food and hospitality in most of these restaurants are unlike anywhere else. Take this unsigned, underground shoe box from Johnny Monis, the chef who’s also behind the four-star Komi next door. To get in, you have to be open to nuts and heat and meat and be willing to eat seven courses family style. The payoff might be spicy smoked catfish scooped up with fried pork rinds, stinging soup coaxed from lime leaf and burnt coconut, a jumble of fried tofu cubes tossed with red peanuts and fresh ginger, followed by a fire extinguisher in the form of shredded beef that’s slightly sweet and rich with basil. There’s grilled pork curry, too, which you’re encouraged to break up with your fingers, and a chicken dish flavored with what a server calls “all the good bits,” chopped skin and liver included. “This tastes like Thailand,” says a companion who recognizes the signature funk, flames and herbaceousness of the northern part of the country. Guests are made to feel like VIPs when staff bring over a gratis extra dish or a wine they’re in love with, but the truth is, that happens to everyone here.
Little Serow: 1511 17th St. NW. littleserow.com.
Open: Dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
Prices: Prix fixe $49.
Sound check: 86 decibels / Extremely loud.
The following review appeared in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide.
Little Serow will light up your taste buds
Paging Andrew Zimmern! The food, some of the hottest and funkiest Thai cooking around, continues to be served family-style by modern-day hepcats in a dimly lit green basement with an unmarked entrance. To start, as always: a rainbow of sliced vegetables and a dried shrimp dip that sets your tongue on alert. From there, anything goes. Over summer, the kitchen introduced me to a blazing tropical salad packed with a jungle of fruit, including sour pluot, a cross between an apricot and a plum; and folds of rosy beef tossed with toasted rice powder and saw-tooth coriander, its flavor reminiscent of cilantro. I also knocked back a lovely Swiss cider coaxed from apple, pear and quince, because this sibling to the four-star Komi is as serious about what goes into your glass as onto your faux paper plate. I know people who still haven’t been, put off by the no-reservations policy or the menu laced with nonnegotiable nuts, shellfish and other ingredients. I also know of no other Thai restaurant this thrilling on the East Coast.
The following review appeared as No. 8 on Tom’s Top 10 restaurants in The Washington Post’s 2016 Fall Dining Guide .
My ambivalence about tasting menus takes a holiday at the best Thai expression on the East Coast. “All the decisions are made for you,” a server says of the seven or so dishes served family-style. “Make yourselves at home,” she says, pouring sparkling rosé in advance of the best fireworks show outside the Fourth of July. Her entreaty is easy to follow; Johnny Monis is cooking the meal, after all. (As shy as he is talented, the James Beard Award winner leaves guest care to his wife and co-owner, Anne Marler.) For the next hour or so, we marvel at dishes inspired by northern Thailand: crunchy pig ears blasted with fresh lime and a touch of fire, and a salad of fiery duck innards, crisped with shallots and garlic and meant to be scooped up with cool cabbage leaves. The votive-lit green bunker in Dupont Circle isn’t for everybody; Little Serow (rhymes with “arrow”) doesn’t take reservations or alter its menu to suit individual tastes. Those are small prices to pay for big flavors that linger in your head long after you’ve licked your plate clean.
The following review appeared inThe Washington Post’s 2015 Fall Dining Guide.
Yes, you’ll probably have to wait in line if you want to eat during the first seating, and, no, the kitchen can’t accommodate fussy eaters. Little Serow packs heat, meat and nuts into its menu, just as cooks all across Northern Thailand do. The payoff — for standing outside, for an adventurous palate — is eight or so courses of food that’s “spicy and loud,” as our enthusiastic server explains, pointing out that the basket of herbs and a pouch of sticky rice are there to refresh the palate and swab sauces.
My companion, a novice to the strangely green basement venue from Johnny Monis, the chef-owner of the neighboring Komi, can’t stop smiling. “Everyone is so NICE here!” Nor can my guest put her spoon down after she samples her first taste of ma nor: Plums, pineapple, dried shrimp and pork — by turns sweet and hot — have that effect on a person. Same with soft eggplant and green beans garnished with mint and shaved cured duck egg, a tart contrast to the first small plate. Shredded catfish is preceded by “a little fire extinguisher,” a server says, pouring a gratis glass of bubbly to tame the flames of tropical spices and the stab of galangal. Bringing up the rear are the softest pork ribs in town, sweetened with whiskey and sprinkled with dill.
The family-style feast remains $45 a person, the same price charged when the Thai thriller opened four years ago. What has changed is my reaction to what’s proved to be one of the most consistent and polished performances in Washington. Welcome to the four-star club, Little Serow.