It was a beautiful Friday night in the District, and I was at my friend/ex bf’s place on 14th street when we realized we truly had a #firstworldproblem. We were hungry, it was time for dinner, but it seemed like every good restaurant within walking distance would probably have a wait because our neighborhoods are just too damn popular. Room 11 is the only place on 11th in Columbia Heights Ben was willing to eat at but we knew there would be a wait, going south on 14th street during the weekend just means battling crowds of yuppies, and we were not in the mood for cheap Mexican food in Mount Pleasant. Then I remembered Thip Khao! This Laotioan restaurant opened at the end of last year on the first floor of the Allegro apartment building in Columbia Heights, and is Chef Seng Luangrath’s second restaurant in the DMV. While I had yet to visit either spot, my parents have consistently praised Bangkok Golden in Falls Church, and Bon Appetit just named Thip Khao one of the best new restaurants of 2015. The Washington City Paper had a wonderful write-up explaining Chef Seng’s background and I have been excited to have another authentic Southeast Asian restaurant in my city!
When we arrived around 8:30pm, it was crowded and the hostess let us know it would be about a 45 minute for a table for two. We decided to hang out at the bar while we waited, and it gave me a few minutes to look around and appreciate the warm atmosphere and beautiful decor. About 10 minutes later, a couple got up from the corner of the bar so we quickly snagged those seats. Once we sat down, we took a look at the menu, which is separated into a regular menu and a traditional Lao menu titled “Let’s Go to the Jungle!!” I suppose “traditional” also could mean “exotic” since alligator, snakehead fish, and blood sausage were some of the listed ingredients, but the word “exotic” just always reminds of some weird compliment a white guy tries to give Asian girls without realizing he’s being racist (wow, Tinder has really made me cynical).
To start, we ordered the raved-about the crispy rice salad (Naem Khao), which A (fake roomie) has insisted I have to try, as well as every single restaurant review I have read. This appetizer came out quickly (or as Tom Sietsema says, “speed date fast”), and served with fresh, crispy lettuce leaves to make wraps. The crunchy rice, pickled pork ham and peanuts were flavored with coconut, lime scallions, hot peppers, and cilantro, Ben’s worst enemy. After two and a half years of dating, I have realized that just the sight of these green leaves is enough to change my hilarious friend into a whiny, pouty man-child. However, he did not seem to mind the cilantro here, since the other ingredients have such powerful flavors. This dish was perfect mix of sweet, slightly sour (from the ham), and savory. The crunchy texture of the rice and peanuts was amazing.
For our main courses, I had my heart set on the Laab Pah Kaw (minced crispy snakehead fish), but the bartender let me know they were completely out of snakehead fish. Now it was my turn to turn into a pouty child, but then I saw that they had a crispy minced alligator dish (Laab E’Kae) listed on the “Let’s Go to the Jungle!!” menu. We also ordered the Muu Som, a braised cured pork belly dish. These two entrees arrived with balls of sticky rice, delivered to the table in adorable bamboo baskets. It was not until I was googling about Lao food that I realized the restaurant is named after these baskets. From the Thip Khao website:
“Sticky rice is an integral part of daily life in Laos. One batch is steamed in the morning and another at night, typically, is eaten intermittently as snacked upon or used in accompanying meals throughout the day. After sticky rice is cooked, it’s placed on a flat surface and a wooden paddle is used to press the steam out. Then, it is placed in a large woven bamboo basket called a “thip khao.” The thip khao is regarded as a communal vessel. Family and guests are welcome to remove its lid,and help themselves. In Lao culture sticky rice is the staple to every meal that complements the main dishes. In order to eat the sticky rice, traditionally you form it into a ball, and pair that with a bite from the other dishes.”
The laab e’kae was extremely spicy, the kind of make-you-sweat, deep heat. Ben, due to his health issues, cannot no longer stomach super spicy food, and I felt bad that he could only handle a couple of bites of this dish because this was my absolutely favorite thing that we ordered that evening. The salty meat, green mango, toasted rice, mint made every bite bursting with sensational flavors. Luckily, Ben loved the pork belly, which was cooked with red bell peppers, shimeji mushrooms, onions, ginger and kaffir lime leaves. The meat was a little too fatty for my taste, but I loved the sauce and the vegetables. Of course, our dishes was eaten with the slightly sweet sticky rice. What I loved about the food here is the intensity of the flavors. I can clearly taste the pungency, the heat, the sweetness, the saltiness of every single bite. The boldness in the cooking here is the kind of cooking that hits your senses, wakes up your taste buds and makes you sit up a little straighter.
To cool down after our amazing meal, we decided to skip out on the traditional Lao desserts and opted for frozen yogurt on our walk back down 14th street instead. Understandably, I definitely had a small stomachache by the time I got back to my apartment, but that has not deterred me from declaring that I absolutely have to return to Thip Khao to make my way through more of their incredible “exotic” dishes.