There are a plethora of new restaurants in DC. One of the hottest newbies- in more ways than one- is Thip Khao. Thip Khao, serving up Laotian food in Columbia Heights, is my restaurant of choice for Valentine’s Day dinner. A romantic dinner for two on Valentine’s Day is traditional. But we’re more about taking advantage of an opportunity to taste multiple dishes, so we invite another couple to join us.
Thip Khao opened in December to a fair amount of fanfare. Chef/owner Seng Luangrath has already made a reputation for herself with the well-respected Bangkok Golden in Falls Church, featuring Thai and Laotian dishes. Thip Khao is focused solely on Laotian food, which is similar to Thai but has its own distinct flavors. In a recent article about Laotian food on Huffington Post, the cuisine is described as “spicy, bitter and incredibly fun to eat.”
Balls of sticky rice are delivered to the table in bamboo baskets – which are called thip khao. My husband immediately bites into the one set before him. I tell him that the sticky rice is an accessory for the dishes to come. He continues to munch on the rice ball, and since it’s Valentine’s Day, I don’t argue.
We appreciate that Thip Khao is vegetarian-friendly, with a menu that identifies options with a “V.” There’s also a “G” for gluten free patrons. There’s not a “P” on the menu, but pescatarians can do well here too.
Thip Khao is best for heat-seekers. We request a taming down on the spice, based on the preferences of one of my friends. Still, the food is bold and packs a punch. This is precisely why I fall for Thip Khao.
I start sweet with a cocktail called “I’ll Show You Tea.” Jasmine tea, Thai honey, and toasted orange is blended with mizu shochu, a Japanese barley. If you dare, and I don’t, there’s also a cocktail featuring fish sauce, char grilled shrimp, and vodka.
Naem Khao comes highly recommended by multiple sources. It’s named “Best Thing on the Menu” by the blog of the same name. It’s a concoction of crispy rice, coconut, lime, scallion, peanuts, and cilantro, which are all rolled into lettuce. The sweet and tangy flavors, representative of Laotian cuisine, dominate here and in many of the dishes that follow.
One of our favorites is Knap Pah, super moist grilled fish with herbs, ginger, and dill and then blanketed with banana leaves. I contemplate ordering a second round, but decide to exercise restraint in order to sample more of the menu. This will top my list of dishes to reorder on a future visit.
Soups and curries are just the thing to soothe the harshness of the blustery snow squall. Kaing Som is sour soup with tamarind, mushrooms, basil, chili, green onions, and cherry tomatoes. It’s an interesting dichotomy with flavors that are surprisingly rich for such a light soup.
Awk is an herbal curry from Southern Lao. Its dark vibrant broth fuses with an original combination of Thai eggplant, mustard leaves, mushroom, green beans, pumpkin, and dill. We order ours with tofu, but it’s also available with chicken, beef, pork, salmon, or seafood.
Adventurous eaters can delight in an entire alternative menu called “Let’s go to the jungle.” The dishes feature off-beat ingredients such as steamed pig’s ear, fried intestine, beef tripe and more. I’m determined to venture over to the wild side. Som pla is an intoxicating mix of tilapia with ginger, chili, fresh garlic, and peanuts. The dish may not be as exotic as some of the others on this list, but it offers a delightful lingering burn.
I give in to desire by ordering one more dish before calling it quits. Grilled chicken heart with sweet Sriracha sauce seems appropriate for the occasion. The skewered tender pieces of meat are enhanced by the spicy sauce.
Our server is surprised when my friend asks if a dessert is spicy. Khao long, pumpkin rice-pudding with pumpkin seeds and “green pre-mature rice,” rounds out our meal beautifully, and there’s no heat in sight. Since the dishes have all been so vivid in their flavors, the question isn’t an outrageous one.
With a growing roster of notable DC restaurants, it’s more important than ever to establish a niche. Thip Khao distinguishes itself with unique Laotian cuisine, but also with a full roster of dishes that truly sizzle.
Thip Khao, 3462 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC
Washington Post review by Tom Sietsema: “Thip Khao sates the appetite for Laotian cuisine in Columbia Heights”