Image: Sausage and Salad.
Last Updated: October 2021
Current Status: Open for dine-in with indoor and outdoor (uncovered) seating. Take-out and delivery available.
Thip Khao is a D.C. treasure. An idea that became a phenomenon and is now a fixture. Chef Seng Luangrath is a leader of the Lao Food Movement and this space, still buzzing after several years and a pandemic, is a monument to what she has accomplished. The menu has been pared down a little post-2020, but there is much goodness to be had including favorites like Naem Khao – a crispy coconut rice salad, the pork sausages, and the beef “jerky.” The Times called out the Nahm Tok, a pork shoulder salad. Michelin flagged the banana wrapped sea bass (a different take on banana wrapped fish is currently on the menu and also excellent). Among the soups, Rick Chessen called the Gaeng Phet (red curry) solid. Kee Mao, flat noodles with chicken, tofu or shrimp, and bell peppers has just enough heat to add complexity. For more heat, many have noted that the papaya salad has a fiery – almost intolerable – spice level, as do a few other dishes. The point we are trying to make is that the menu is populated with great dishes and each time you go you may find a new favorite as seems to happen with each new critic who visits. Rather than steering you to certain dishes, we would suggest picking a couple dishes that sound like you would like them and a couple more that sound intriguing. Have fun, and keep a full water glass handy just in case the heat kicks in.
When the place opened, they brought in an expert to construct the cocktail menu that drew on ingredients from Southeast Asia, and several cocktails carry forward that idea. The rest of the beverage list is limited, with four wine options, Lao Beer on draft, and a couple more in bottles or cans. There are several non-alcoholic options, including Thai iced tea and iced tamarind. Though it is a great neighborhood spot, reservations are recommended.
The story of Thip Khao is partly the story of menus. Chef Seng was an excellent cook, who first learned the cuisine of Laos cooking in the refugee camps where she fled with her family during the tumult of the Vietnam War era. They eventually made it to California, where she cooked family meals as a teenager. Later she married, moved to this area, helped with her husband’s business, and raised kids. In 2010, she decided to move into a restaurant kitchen. She took over a Thai spot, Bangkok Garden, in Virginia, but started serving Lao dishes off a “secret” menu. Word got out, including a visit from Tom Sietsema of the Post in 2010 that gave her the confidence to move the Lao menu front and center. Until then, she feared the cooking was too much for American palates. Thip Khao was the first foray into the District and her first with a menu focused solely on Lao food. Indeed, she responded to the many diners attracted by the “authenticity” factor by adding a “jungle” section to the menu that included ingredients like alligator, chicken hearts, ant eggs, and tripe. The current menu does not include those options, though pig ears show up in a couple dishes. As for Bangkok Garden, it is now a Lao restaurant named after the distinct fish sauce, Padeak, that many Lao chefs felt they had to hide away when growing up. As a Times story writes, naming the restaurant Padaek was a powerful statement, “That Ms. Luangrath named her restaurant after the ingredient — pushing it into the foreground, celebrating the real beauty and power of its glorious stink — wasn’t lost on Lao cooks who had hidden their padaek away, whether literally or figuratively.” From Thip Khao, she and her son went on to open Hanumanh in Shaw and a stall in Tyson’s Galleria. The door she opened helped others like Laos in Town and arguably Bad Saint, a testament to leadership.
If you haven’t been, we recommend you go. If you have been, this is a reminder to go back.
Neighborhood: Columbia Heights/Petworth
Address: 3462 14th St NW, Washington DC
Washington Post: Tom wrote in 2015, “With the possible exception of the owner, no one was more eager to see Thip Khao open in the District than I.” Then he gave it 2.0 stars. First Bite in 2014. In 2010, Tom paid a visit to Bangkok Garden when it was a Thai place with a secret Lao menu. Jessica Sidman, in a profile of Chef Seng as she prepared to open Thip Khao, tells a great back story about that visit: “My sister-in-law ran to the kitchen she was so happy. She was like, ‘Auntie Seng, you’re going to have to hear this! There’s two white guys in the front…and they want Lao food! And he wants exactly how you eat it!’”
Washingtonian: #61 in 2020 Top 100 (combined with Padaek); #50 in 2019; 2018 (and Cheap Eats 2018), #73 in 2017 (and Cheap Eats in 2017). 2016 (Cheap Eats 2016); 2015 Cheap Eats (Bangkok Garden made the Top 100). Kliman’s 2015 review.
DonRockwell.com – To be honest, this is the kind of place DR.com folks embrace, and they did.
Lori Gardner (Been There Eaten That): Initial write-up in 2015. 2021 re-visit.
Rick Eats DC: Tips for eating at Thip Khao
Bon Appetit: Top 50 New Restaurant in 2015.
Michelin: Bib Gourmand
New York Times: Top 50 Restaurants (that they are excited about) in 2021.