Eating Around Town – Little Serow


This edition of Eating Around Town was written by Abbey Becker. Abbey previously wrote about El Chucho. She lives near Eastern Market.

Little Serow (1511 17th St NW) is a sliver of a place, but its size doesn’t match its reputation. The basement restaurant seats 28 at a time, and if you want to sit on one of their bar stools, you have to get in line before the 5:30 opening time each night to put your name down.

As someone who gets off at work at 5:30 in Bethesda, making it here in time proved a challenge the first time. I got there at exactly 5:30 on a Friday (so I left work a little early…) and stood behind probably 15 people. While I was looking for a table for four, I figured, hey, 15 people in front of me? We’ll at least get a late reservation. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case–they couldn’t give us a table that night, though they might have been able to seat us at the bar around 10 or 10:30. I was not willing to wait five hours for a full meal that may or may not have happened.

The next time, I went on a Wednesday evening, and I sent my boyfriend on ahead of me to get in line before 5:30–he gets out of work much earlier. We tried for a table for two and ended up with a 7:15 reservation, which gave us time for a drink or two around the corner.

If you’re looking for cocktails or beer, you may want to drink them before you sit down for dinner. Little Serow doesn’t serve cocktails, and they offer 5-ounce pours of their beers from bottles at $5 each. Don’t get me wrong–a six-course meal for $45 is a great deal, especially when the food is as good as it is here, but that much for a small pour of beer is, to me, a little ridiculous. I wish they’d at least made it a deal to buy the bottle instead, but each large-format version of the pours was $24. Wine ranges from $10-$12 per glass, which isn’t outrageous, but when you’re a young, semi-poor diner and you’re already paying $45 for dinner before tax and tip, you start to consider using your credit card instead of your debit card.

That being said, we had a really excellent dining experience. Let me reiterate that it is an experience here, not just dinner. The service is like nothing I’ve experienced in DC–there were a few waitresses circulating throughout the restaurant, and we interacted with all of them. Each one served us at least one dish, refilled our water, or gave us more sticky rice or cucumbers. Each one offered a friendly suggestion of how she liked to eat that dish or mentioned that this dish was her favorite. They made us feel welcomed and not at all like we were guests–we could have been at a friend of a friend’s house for the first time.

Continues after the jump.

There’s no point in reviewing individual dishes, as the fixed menu changes weekly. It’s always six courses, it’s always $45, it’s always Thai food, but that’s where the commonalities stop. As someone who is a somewhat picky eater, let me give you a bit of advice: don’t read the menu. When I saw some of the ingredients included in that night’s dishes, my stomach turned a little. Snakehead fish? River weed? Salted fish? Yuck.

But seriously, none of these dishes tasted at all like what I imagined these ingredients to be. Maybe there was snakehead fish mixed with the bamboo shoots and rice powder, but to me, all I got was the crunch of the shoots and the hot-sour-salty-sweet combination typical of Thai food, plus a bit of smokiness. Little Serow is the kind of place where you make a point to try everything you’re served, whether or not you think you’ll like it, because you know that they are the masters of their craft. They are going to make these ingredients taste as good as they can possibly taste because they have that skill. Its chef-owner, Johnny Monis, just won a coveted James Beard award. He knows how to cook river weed properly.

I’m not sure I’d go back right away, or even in the next few months. This was a process from before the meal to its end. You’re not guaranteed a seat and you’re eating a six-course meal–this is the kind of dining experience that takes planning and patience, even on the part of the diner. I think I’d need a bit of time off to be willing to risk not getting a spot, and to truly appreciate what a good meal this was. I know I won’t be able to afford Komi anytime soon, so perhaps I’ll be back sooner than I think to try Monis’s cooking again.

56 Comment

  • Snakehead is supposed to be a very tasty fish.

    $5 for five ounces of beer? That’s ridiculous.

    • All of their high-end beers (think Hitochino Nest Ale) are $5 per pour but you can get bottles of less expensive beers (standard IPA, vietnamese beer) for $5-$6 per bottle (12 ounce) which I think is average pricing for the area.

    • Awesome. First post includes two baseless comments and one diss. I have to retort because I think what Serow does with the beverages is fantastic. $5 for five ounces is pretty awesome actually. They go out of their way to procure 750ml bottles of unique, specialty beers that cost them a lot to begin with. Any other bar/restaurant, you would have to buy the whole bottle and pay at least $25 for beers of similar quality. This is your chance to enjoy things you might not normally get a chance to. If a wine of similar quality (or even similar cost to the restaurant for that matter) was available for $5/glass, you would think it was a good value. Get your mind out of 1993. They also put a lot of thought in to what beers/ciders/etc. pair well with the Thai food that they prepare. No one else does this in our city. Finally, if you don’t like it, there are other options (including an awesome “alcoholic ginger beer”) in 12oz servings for less per ounce than $1. Keep up the great work Little Serow!

  • I’d love to try this place but sadly it doesn’t sound like it works for vegetarians.

    • Yeah, I’d love to go here with my girlfriend but she’s a picky pescetarian with no patience. Think we’ll have to pass on this experience.

      • Or you can go with a friend or by yourself. Why deny yourself a great experience cuz your SO won’t enjoy it too?

        • Because I don’t know anyone else who would go and I don’t like eating an expensive meal alone? Besides it’s not like this is the only great dining experience DC has to offer.

    • If you call in advance, they can let you know if they can accommodate (I’m sure they can accommodate something as easy as vegetarianism and pescatarianism – I know someone who was able to arrange a gluten-free menu, too) – they actually asked us at the door if we had any food allergies, so while they say they won’t make substitutions, I think they’re just trying to avoid someone walking in and wanting to substitute chicken for all the fish, or just asking for lots of tweaks. I *highly* recommend giving it a try – it was one of the best meals I’ve had in DC. As for the expensive beer, you’re also getting a 6-course, roll-me-out-of-here meal for $45, so it balances out to some extent.

      • When we went last month, we overheard a conversation in which the staff told someone that they weren’t able to accommodate a vegetarian request. Maybe if you call in advance, but not if you just show up.

      • Website says there’s no changes to the menu.

      • justinbc

        While I absolutely love what Little Serow offers, it’s definitely not “roll-me-out-of-here” quantity. Most of the dishes are rather small to begin with and then have to be split amongst the party.

  • Been there, done that, waited in line at 4:30 to get a seat, won’t be doing that again. My time is worth more than the hassle required to say you’ve been to the most “in” spot in DC.

    • Maybe I’m just impatient, but I’m amazed at how people just love to wait in line for places like this.

      The food might be amazing, but it’s not worth waiting in line like that.

      • binpetworth

        Gotta agree. Until this place accepts reservations (like Thai X-ing mentioned below), I won’t be going there.

        • If you are not willing to wait, then maybe food is not a real priority for you. I have eaten here several times and I did not go through the hassle because it was the hip or in spot.

          • Can’t speak for the others, but food is secondary to the experience for me. And waiting in line like cattle kinds of kills the experience part.

          • I love a great meal. I will spend extra money for fabulous service and a unique experience. I also have no problem going to dinner by myself to experience a well-regarded restaurant. BUT, I absolutely hate waiting an hour or more for a meal. It’s why I make reservations when I visit a hot-spot (We’ll see you next week, Le Diplomate!) I don’t have that kind of patience. I could be doing something more interesting with my time…or making an amazing meal myself.

          • justinbc

            Are you really all doing incredibly fascinating things every Wednesday at 5PM? Maybe you are, and I’m just wrong, but I think the real problem is that so many people expect to be able to go to popular places at 7PM on Friday and expect to have them fawn over the fact they showed up, and that’s just not reality. Read through Yelp reviews (if you can stomach it) for places like Little Serow and Toki and the #1 complaint for folks who “didn’t like it” is the fact they had to wait for it, at the most popular destinations in the whole city.

          • “Are you really all doing incredibly fascinating things every Wednesday at 5PM?”

            Not always, but usually dining out is an activity you do with someone else, and it’s easier to get together on the weekend evenings.

    • I have to agree. They should just take reservations. The whole waiting in line thing just makes it seem so “trendy”. I remember when people used to wait in line at Pasta Mia…

  • You should always use your credit card instead of debit. Rewards!

    • ah

      Remember – There are two groups of people:

      Group 1: Pays credit card in full each month, pays no interest, collects rewards, uses CC for everything
      Group 2: Runs revolving balance, paying interest, wants to keep CC transactions to only those necessary to pay over time.

      • ah

        Well 3
        Group 3: Doesn’t have a credit card for one reason or another.

        • Group 4: Never bothered with credit cards until recently, couldn’t qualify for a credit card because they have no credit history, finally got a card but the limit is so low that they can’t rack up more than $200 in charges without it hurting their credit.

          • All good points. Part of my work relates to financial coaching, and I have plenty of personal experiences with my own credit history, so I would say it all depends on which strategy works best for each individual. Some people can be really disciplined about using their card for rewards and paying off charges immediately; others are going to be too tempted to spend beyond their budget if they have that card with available credit burning a hole in their pocket, or they’ll say “I’ll just make this one charge and catch up on the payment next month…” (No judgment–I am in that latter category.)

            And Anon 12:34, if you are talking about your own personal experience, take heart that you seem to be on the right track. Credit-building (whether one has over-used credit in the past or is newly establishing a credit file) can take a little time, but one of the most important things you can do is to establish 2-3 lines of active credit (even if they’re secured cards or if the credit limit is small; “active,” meaning the accounts are open and you’ve used them within the past 6 months), don’t exceed your credit limit, AND pay those accounts on time. If you’re going to carry a balance try to keep it under 30% of the credit limit (or at least as close to 30% as possible, if under 30% is not realistic). Maxing out your credit limit–whether you’ve charged $9,990 of a $10,000 credit line or $190 of a $200 credit line–can also negatively impact your score. But just maintaining on-time payments on the active lines of credit can have a big positive impact on your score, and as the score improves, better credit opportunities will become available. OK, that’s it for my tangent! 😉

          • The weird thing is my credit is good and I’ve been making mortgage payments on time for the past 2.5 years, but still can’t get a card with a limit higher than $750. So I can’t really charge things like flights to it without going over 30%.

          • Huh, Anon 12:58–that is a little unusual. Most of the very-low-credit-limit cards I’ve come across are with individuals who have a very thin or no credit file, and certainly no history like a mortgage. Although I guess people’s credit situations are like snowflakes–every single one is different. Plus, FICO’s precise algorithms are always shifting, and there is such a wide range of underwriting criteria among lenders that unfortunately, in the credit-building/financial coaching field, there really is no guaranteed-to-work advice, just the broad/general guiding principles.

          • Yeah I’ve tried with the easiest cards out there and keep getting rejected. I can’t even get Capital One to raise the limit on my card which I’ve had for a few years now. The card I have is the only one I could get at the time and it’s designed for people who are new to the country and have no credit history (I’m not, but the Old World mentality that led me to not getting a card until I was 27 definitely came from my family!). I can’t apply too many places, though, or I rack up too many hard inquiries.

      • LOL @ carrying a credit card balance if you’re over the age of 21

        • LOL at needing to put down others to make oneself feel better. News flash, many people carry a credit card balance after age 21, and they are not all frivolous shopaholics. Some people got into debt while young and not understanding the implications, and are still digging out from under. But there are many more of modest means who turned to credit cards for basic necessities after a job loss, unexpected medical expenses, or emergencies that couldn’t be covered by savings. (Not everybody can get approved for a loan at the Bank of Mom and Dad.)

          • Those people will be stuck in the rat race forever. Enjoy poverty!

          • “Those people” are serving and preparing your meals, taking your blood and vitals at the doctor/hospital, ringing up your purchases, and cleaning up after you in offices and other public places, among other things. They’re probably not enjoying their poverty, but hey, at least you are.

  • If you’re “young and semi-poor” there are other places that can accommodate you.

  • I eat seafood (and enjoy it), but didn’t enjoy the snakehead. As for the beer, no, if you want a couple of bottles of beer, this isn’t your place. But, I like the small servings of beer. It let’s you pair the beer with the different courses, to create your own little tasting menu. And it’s not like they’re dolling out shitty beer. You’d pay about the same (give or take a dollar either way) for a four ounce pour at Churchkey. When I’ve been, I’ve asked the waitress for recommendations and what I’ve been given is always a perfect compliment to the food.

    • justinbc

      +1 regarding quality of beer selection and price of those beers per ounce. If you actually know what you’re getting it’s a good value (comparatively).

  • I ate at Thai x-ing last night. It was phenomenal. For $35/pp and 4 people, we were served about 8-9 big family-style dishes. Delicious dishes. Plate after plate begin to come out of the kitchen as soon as you’re seated. I felt like I was back in Thailand. And, it’s BYOB, which saves you money. Making reservations was easy and I’d go back in a heartbeat. I know that one night a week they have only vegetarian and another vegetarian + fish only. I could eat the pumpkin curry every day of my life.

    • I like Thai X-ing too! Good call on this one.

    • I believe that they serve veggie-only meals on Sundays.

    • justinbc

      Did they reduce the price? It used to be $45 just like Little Serow. While I really love Thai X-ing as well I think comparing what they do to L.S. is a bit unfair. Thai X-ing has one guy doing all of the cooking, and every now and then you get stuff that has been microwaved (it’s in their house, so you can actually see them using it). You would never get something prepared in the same way from Chef Monis’ kitchen. The BYOB aspect is indeed fun, we’ve had some riotous nights in there.

  • $5 for less than a half bottle of beer?

    Thanks for making this one easy on me. Firmly inserted into the “no go” list.

    • Moaye it’s organic, locally souced, gluten-free beer.

    • The $5 pours are for some more unusual beers that come in 22oz or 700ml bottles, and would be $14-20 at a bottle shop. If you’re into the beers you wouldn’t buy the pours anyway, because they sell the bombers by the bottle as well, and for a pretty reasonable (restaurant) price.

      • I’ve been a few times (and am going again tonight) and have had the servers top off my $5 pours halfway through without charging. The service is incredibly gracious, the food’s outstanding and all told, it’s reasonably priced for what you get. Also, I was under the impression Thai Xing is dirty/has cats wondering around the house…

    • justinbc

      Your basing your decision “firmly” off one girl’s account of her impression of the beer selection/pricing at a (distinctly unique) Thai restaurant?

  • You don’t need to “wait in line.” Show up, put your name down, and they’ll give you an estimate of how long it will take to get a table.

    Then go grab a drink at Fox and Hounds or some other bar, and they’ll call you 20 minutes or so before the table is ready. It’s pretty simple. And the food is fantastic.

    • Don’t you have to wait in line just to put your name down, though?

      Also, what if I don’t want to hang around for two hours before a meal? What if I want to work until 20 minutes before dinner, then walk over, then eat dinner? Why all the hoop jumping when services like Open Table exist?? It’s a power trip, that’s why.

      • justinbc

        Because idiots abuse reservation systems. This place has a very small number of tables. If you and 2 other parties make reservations and then don’t keep them and they’ve turned away other parties because of it (or sites like Open Table won’t even allow them to book), they’re out $ for the night. This way, they have a running tally of the people who genuinely want to be there and can easily cross people off the list if they change their mind and move on to the next person.

  • Get rid of this stupid reservation system. Why should a customer have to wait in line just to put a name in to eat and then be uncertain what time or if you’re able to eat before 10pm? Who’s the customer in this situation? I’m waiting on you just take my name down? Ridiculous.

  • surprised at all the negativity on this thread, mostly from folks who haven’t eaten here. i haven’t had better food or service in D.C., even at five times this price point. not to mention the genuinely fresh concept and atmosphere. i’m not a fan of no-reservations policies in general, but for a place this good that would sell out reservations a month in advance, i actually like that i can decide to go spur-of-the moment, quickly leave my name, and get a text when my table is ready, as i’m happy hour drinks at Hanks. I wish Rasika downtown had the same policy, i haven’t been able to get a reservation there in years, even with two or three weeks notice.

    • justinbc

      While I agree with you on Little Serow, I’m wondering why you’re unable to get reservations at Rasika for multiple years running? I’ve never had a problem, often with less than a week notice.

      • Really? I don’t have a problem at Rasika West End, but i can never get anything downtown. For example, I just tried for Saturday June 8th, and nothing is available. Weekdays are probably a little easier, but I’m always wanting to take weekend guests there.

        • justinbc

          Oh, yeah, I’m sure that’s why. I try to avoid popular restaurants on Friday and Saturday. It’s just so much simpler during the week.

  • Spot on with this write-up, I really think this website wants way more consideration. I抣l probably be again to learn way more, thanks for that info.

Comments are closed.