When Little Serow opened in 2011, its funky, sour, spicy Southeast Asian flavors seemed novel to D.C.’s dining scene—especially from a white guy who runs a Mediterranean fine dining destination.
Nowadays, variations of those pungent flavors are all over the place: Thai and Vietnamese at Doi Moi, Laotian at Thip Khao, Cambodian and Taiwanese at Maketto, Filipino at Bad Saint. It’s safe to say Little Serow helped make cuisines once relegated to the suburbs (or half a world away) trendy and mainstream.
But even with the range of Southeast Asian options in the District today, Little Serow still manages to outshine them all. In fact, anytime I want to wow an out-of-town visitor or just indulge myself, chef Johnny Monis’ restaurant tops the list.
Yes, people still line up an hour before the 5:30 p.m. opening to secure a seat in the no-reservations eatery. And yes, a seven-course, family-style menu still awaits you in the low-lit, seagreen-walled concrete basement dining room. If you haven’t been recently, the price has increased from $45 to $49 per person, but it’s still one of the best values in town.
No matter how many times I go, I still manage to find delight in the beautiful basket of fresh greens, including watermelon radishes, Thai basil, and shiso leaves, that accompany the entire meal along with a basket of sticky rice. The garden bounty is perfect for scooping up spiced bits of ground pork and pork blood showered in crispy shallots. A pad of sticky rice helps temper the spiciness of a crispy tofu dish with peanuts, onions, and a generous helping of cilantro. (Be warned: No substitutions are allowed.)
The menu has the range of a church organ when it comes to spiciness—from subtle white noise heat to a slow, crescendoing burn that makes your eyes water. While drinks criss-cross the globe from German white wine to Thai Singha lager on ice, I prefer a bottle of French Normandy cider whose sweetness helps counteract the fire.
And then, of course, there are the pork ribs. Glossed in a tangy, sweet sauce with a sprinkling of dill and shallots, the smoked meat practically slides off the bone. It’s stayed on the menu for four and a half years, and it remains a dish with no rival in D.C.