this may now be my favorite place in the city.
i debated with for awhile before typing out that sentence -- favorite isn't something to be taken lightly or often changed -- but after thinking back over the meal i just ate, i'm sticking with the judgment. little serow serves incredible food. i'm not being hyperbolic. i really mean incredible. as in, difficult to believe. difficult to believe the quality. the price. and the spice. wow, the spice. it's probably the spiciest i've ever eaten. the $45, 7-course, family-style dinner of authentic northern thai cuisine rotates weekly and is unadulterated for an american palate. there are no changes or substitutions, and thank goodness, because i cannot imagine that diners could change or substitute their way into an otherwise better meal. (if you have nut allergies, however, i suggest you not even darken the door.) i'll be back. as often as i can.
little serow is the second restaurant from famed chef johnny monis. it's located next door to his original komi (which is routinely judged the best in the city), in the basement of an otherwise unmarked rowhouse. there are no reservations. i arrived at 5pm to wait outside in line until its 5:30pm opening, and by the time the hostess poked her head out to begin seating us, there were at least two dozen people lined up along the sidewalk, happily standing in 100 degree heat for the opportunity to eat a meal, which at its spiciest, feels much hotter than 100 degrees.
the restaurant has an unlikely combination of flavor and atmosphere: the tiny space accommodates probably fewer than fifty diners at a time, and in addition to its huge flavors, sports electric turquoise walls, a totally open prep space, music reminiscent of the oh brother, where art thou soundtrack, and charming servers who all look like they walked out of an anthropologie catalog. mine, amy -- "yup, spelled the easy way. i won a campaign for class secretary with that as a slogan!" -- was funny, intensely knowledgeable, and at least as excited about the food as i was. and given how excited i get about food, that's saying something. after chef johnny spent several minutes watching service literally three feet from me, near the upper right corner of the table pictured above, amy exclaimed "did you see chef johnny?! how awesome is it that he's here for service tonight?!!" my squealing response in the affirmative would've made an eavesdropper think we had just met the beatles.
few restaurants are as food-driven as little serow, so i suppose i probably should get to the food. above left is the jeow mak keun: crispy pork rinds served with a gently spicy eggplant, shrimp paste, and cilantro root dip. (i specify "gently spicy", because if i didn't start with something relatively innocuous sounding, there'd be no place for me to go in describing course five that did not involve an epic amount of profanity.) above right is the basket of thai vegetables and herbs they leave with you to mix and match with your meal. lettuce wraps are encouraged, as is random experimentation. amy also left us with a basket of sticky rice, which she told us to ball up with our hands and sop liberally into the various sauces.
above left, yum wun sen talay: shrimp, mussels, and glass noodles. also lots of peanuts. and spice. more spice than the eggplant dip, though not so much as the above right, tom sap: a chilled chicken broth with tomato, mushroom, lime leaves, and numerous other herbs. the soup was a fantastic combination of tart and spicy, and as i chugged down glass after glass of water (as well as several glasses of wine), amy asked "did you know your eyelids can sweat? i learned that my first meal here!" i did too.
spicier still, than the chilled soup, was the above left, laap pla duk: catfish, shallots, and sawtooth. from this i made lettuce wraps of many varieties, all of which were absolutely delicious. and all of which left my mouth absolutely on fire. but not as on fire as the above right, which i'm putting down in the books as the spiciest dish i've ever eaten. i'm talking nuclear, 10th-layer-of-hell, fire-breathing levels of spice. the khao tod: crispy rice, mint, and peanuts. and lest you think me wimpy, i have eaten a lot of spicy food. half my family is from texas; i probably drank salsa before i drank water. but this...this was spicy. and yet, not in a way that fried your mouth and left you unable to taste anything. which i suppose is the really neat thing about little serow's food: it's both incredibly spicy and incredibly complex -- a rare combination.
courses six and seven actually ramped down the spice level considerably, so i didn't leave the restaurant with my eyelids still sweating. above left, the gai lan bla kem: greens, salted fish, and egg. rebecca, my friend who joined me for dinner, almost licked this plate clean. and it is to her that i owe the good idea of a side view of course seven pictured above right, the si krong muu: pork ribs, mekhong whiskey, and dill. she and i fought over who got to lick this particular plate.
the meal ends with these little crack-like sticky rice pastries, which i'm convinced could be sold alone for a small fortune. and all told, we did a pretty good job of decimating our fantastic 7-course meal. i probably would've returned today if it wouldn't have made me look like a total crazy person. but maybe tomorrow...