A bustling Asian restaurant just a few blocks from the Columbia Heights Metro stop, Thip Khao serves up the Lao cuisine of northeast Thailand.
Thip Khao’s storefront sign with bright red letters welcomes customers at 3462 14th St. NW. A glass-tiled wall and rectangular black shelves stand behind the bar, and the dining area features vibrant yellow walls and a dragon mural.
Indented cutouts in the walls are filled with vases, pillows and metal lanterns. Wooden tables and chairs are packed into two large dining areas, and there is plenty of seating outside to accommodate guests on busy days.
All of the dishes on Thip Khao’s menu – which offers small plates, salads, soups and mains – are made to share. Instead of beginning with a salad or appetizer, every dish you order is brought out randomly as it’s made.
Laotian cuisine is distinctly spicier than traditional Thai food and tends to use more aromatics like lemongrass to garnish dishes. Many of Thip Khao’s dishes feature ingredients like pork, catfish, fermented fish pastes, lime, lemongrass, ginger and banana blossoms – tender, edible flowers.
The menu also highlights some uncommon ingredients like alligator in the laab e’kae minced alligator salad ($18), fried pig ears and fermented chili-fish sauce in the hu muu todd ($13) and grilled chicken hearts with fermented shellfish and lime in the piing hua jai kai ($11).
If you’re not feeling adventurous enough to try these items, some of the restaurant’s other traditional dishes highlight bold flavors and textures. I tried out the chuenh taohu ($10), made with crispy chili-glazed tofu and scallions. For a larger serving, khao poon ($14) is red coconut curry stew with rice noodles, vegetables and a choice of catfish ($16), chicken ($15) or fried tofu ($14).
After getting my first crunchy plate from the chuenh taohu, I made my way to the naem khao thadeau ($15), which means crispy coconut rice. In addition to the crispy rice, the dish is made up of sour pork, roasted peanuts, banana blossoms, lime, scallions and cilantro.
The plate comes with five large lettuce wraps so you can taste every flavor in one bite. Like many other of the menu’s items, naem khao thadeau can be made vegan, which is how I ordered it.
Whether you choose to have pork or opt for the vegan version, you won’t miss out on the star of the dish: the crispy coconut rice. A blend of tender and crunchy rice gives the plate a balance of textures, and the sauteed onions absorb the sour lime flavors. The cilantro, banana blossom and scallions add some freshness to the salty flavors of the salad.
Don’t forget to check out the drink menu for something refreshing to accompany your meal. Thip Khao’s sour Thai iced tea ($3) is a riff on the traditional Thai sweet orange-colored tea with the addition of lime juice. The bar also serves up Thai-inspired cocktails like the green mango cocktail ($12) with chili-infused vodka, mango, ginger liqueur, lime and basil.
Whether you want to try a crowd-pleaser like the naem khao thadeau crispy rice salad or step out of your comfort zone with the laab e’kae minced alligator salad, Thip Khao offers Lao dishes that give you a reason to skip out on Thai takeout.