You know a restaurant is hot when it has no phone number, no online reservation system and no Twitter presence, yet it manages to draw crowds of people willing to brave an hour-long wait in hopes of scoring a coveted walk-in dinner seating. Little Serow, a Thai restaurant based in Washington, DC, has this high class problem of being too popular, a result of the numerous accolades it has won from publications such as GQ and Bon Appétit as one of the best new restaurants in the country. Snagging a ressie for Little Serow isn’t easy, but this post will give you some tips on what to expect so that you won’t walk away disappointed when the hostess turns you away.
1. LINE UP EARLY – The restaurant technically opens at 5:30 pm, but people start waiting in line for dinner much earlier than that. We arrived at the restaurant on a Friday night at around 4:45 pm, and there were already ~20 people in front of us. In about 10 minutes, a line around the block had formed behind us.
2. THERE ARE SEVERAL SEATINGS FOR PARTIES OF 4 OR LESS – If you’re one of the first 30 people in line, you will likely make the 5:30 pm seating. If not, you can leave your name and number with the hostess, who will then message you once the first seating wraps up. Even if you make the first cut, you have the option of choosing to dine later, in which case the restaurant will text you once your table is ready. The first seating ended around 6:45 pm. You can’t really predict when they’ll message you, so just plan on hanging out at a bar nearby and leaving once you get the greenlight. I would say there are roughly 3 seatings per night, with each one lasting 1.5-2 hours.
3. FOOD COMES OUT FAST – This isn’t a typical tasting menu where items are served one dish at a time. The servers will bring out things in groups of two or three in quick succession. Sometimes you won’t be done with a course, and 6 plates will pile up in front of you. Unfortunately this makes you uncomfortably full really fast. Make sure to eat an early lunch and try to pace yourself as best as you can during the meal.
So now that the logistics are out of the way, what about the actual food? The food here, which is inspired by Northern Thai cooking, is SPICY. There is no option for mild or medium spiciness, it’s off the charts hot for everyone. I knew I was in trouble when I was already struggling with the first course nam prik narohk, which consisted of fried pork rinds and a dipping paste made of catfish, tamarind and chiles. I had only used a miniscule amount of the sauce but my mouth was already on fire. I read that carbs can help take the edge off spicy foods, so I quickly helped myself to some sticky rice and lots of sips of beer. After dodging that bullet, my heart sank when the waitress told me that the levels of spiciness would continue to build with each dish and would be scaled back down midway through the tasting. I was on dish 1, it would only get hotter until at least dish 4 or 5. Oh boy.
The nam prik narohk was followed by the tom kha het, a creamy and delicious coconut soup made with mushroom, pumpkin and galangal, a close cousin of the ginger root, as well as the bla chorn lom kwan, which had the texture and taste of chopped eel covered in lime flakes. Despite the warning that spiciness would build with each subsequent dish, I found these next two courses to be much more mild. The soup was one of my favorites from the night–Little Serow’s light and refined rendition avoided the extremely heavy creaminess that you tend to get in other versions. The bla chom lom kwan, on the other hand, was a little to dry and salty for me.
Things started heating up again with the arrival of gai laap chiang mai, a minced chicken liver dish, and the naem khao tod, an amazing platter consisting of crispy rice nuggets coated in a spicy, sweet sauce, sour pork cubes and peanuts. The first few bites of the minced chicken were memorably fragrant and floral, but then the spiciness kicked in and totally hijacked the striking flavors of the dish. I had to basically eat the whole leaf basket and almost finished off my beer to make it through this course. It pains me to say that we couldn’t handle the heat and left half of it untouched. The spice level of the crispy rice and pork was much more manageable, which was a relief because I could fully appreciate the delightful sensation of biting into the sweet, fried bits of rice.
As promised, the last two dishes were on the lower end of the spicy Richter scale. I wasn’t a big fan of the nam ngeow, a pork dish that can best be described as a Thai version of the Sloppy Joe. I loved how the tender pork meat fell right off the bones in the si krong muu, and the light fish sauce and whiskey dill marinade was a nice touch.
The pacing of the meal in which the courses were more or less brought out all at once wasn’t ideal and didn’t leave enough time to recover from the intensity of the previous dishes. At the end of the tasting, we were just overwhelmed by how stuffed we were, and we were very much aware of the unpleasant spicy aftertaste coating our mouths. The dessert course was a small yet delicious piece of coconut rice, a short and sweet antidote to all the fire that came before it.
I think in all honesty, like Mission Street Chinese, Little Serow is a bit overhyped. I probably truly enjoyed 4 out of the 7 dishes, but I would not go out of my way to wait 45 minutes in line again. It was a novel dining experience, and some of the flavor combinations I experienced were quite interesting and unique. I’m glad that I did it, but in more of a check-the-box sort of way. A more low-key night at Sripraphai or Zabb Elee is fine by me.
1511 17th Street NW
Washington DC 20036