The dark red dollop of nam prik narohk, literally "chili paste from hell," is one of a family of Thai condiments with various consistencies and temperaments. At Little Serow this particular nam prik was prepared from catfish, tamarind, and chilies; ultimately, it wasn't so hellish. Alongside is khaep muu, introduced by my server as housemade Thai "chicharrones."
Little Serow (rhymes with "arrow") serves only a single set menu of Northern Thai dishes, updated weekly. Since no substitutions are made on the fly, any accommodations of non-Thai palates and sensibilities must be made up front. A nam prik might not be prepared at its most fiery; a traditional Thai snack of deep-fried pork skin is assigned a more familiar Latin American name. On my visit, fermented funk was entirely absent, though seemingly it reared its pungent head when the set menu was revised for a later week.
And yet each of these dishes was so well-balanced — I don't recall a better laap gai — that my meal as a whole was a delight.
Also shown, in order of appearance on the set menu ($45): tom kha het, mushroom-galangal soup; bla chorn lom kwan, snakehead fish (a Potomac-caught specimen of this invasive species) with kaffir lime and rice powder; gai laap Chiang Mai, which incorporated dill, shallots, and chicken liver as well as chicken meat; naem khao tod, sour pork with peanuts and crispy rice; nam ngeow, pork with sour tomato and crispy garlic; si krong muu, pork ribs marinated in Mekong whiskey and dill. Not shown are an ample basket of fresh vegetables and herbs and a container of sticky rice, which served to mitigate stronger flavors, to scoop up or soak up the last little bits of favorite dishes, and to freshen the palate between courses.
Also not shown is a glass of sweet rice milk (compliments of the house, normally $3). By the time the final three, pork-based dishes began to arrive, so had my awareness of accumulated chili. The heat had arrived after all.
1511 17th St. N.W. (P-Church Sts.), Washington, D.C.
Closed Sunday and Monday
(From an Easter 2013 visit)