I've always been a big fan of Chipotle Mexican Grille's menu and business model. What's there not to like about ordering very tasty burritos and bowls custom-built before your eyes with top quality, carefully sourced ingredients? I guess the long lines are one drawback, but they don't seem to keep the faithful away. So when I traveled to Washington D.C. last week for the annual IFEC conference, I headed for the company's new spinoff—ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen. Its one and (so far) only location just opened this fall in our nation's capital and the lines already rival and often surpass those at Chipotle.
For good reason. The model is based on Chipotle's success—patrons build their own bowls or banh mi sandwiches from an assortment of authentic Southeast Asian ingredients, choosing a protein, veggie, sauce and garnish. I opted for a bowl, starting with a base of chilled rice noodles (jasmine or brown rice are the other options). The pork & chicken meatballs sounded more intriguing than grilled chicken, beef or tofu, so they went on next, followed by long beans, green curry sauce, green papaya slaw and crushed peanuts.
I thought it was a little weird that the noodles were chilled, but once the warm meatballs, sauce and garnishes were piled on, everything moderated to room temperature. The combination of ingredients was delicious and the portion, very generous. The meatballs were definitely a great choice—airy, well seasoned and bite-sized for easy eating. I really enjoyed the contrast of textures and flavors and the authenticity of the preparation. I didn't have a chance to sample the banh mi sandwiches, but from the look on the faces of customers who were wolfing them down, they seemed to be winners, too.
But speaking to others at the conference who had made the ShopHouse pilgrimage, the banh mi bread has not been perfected quite yet. And the grilled steak is best when medium-rare, which can be hard to maintain during service. But all agreed that the veggie choice is pretty special—eggplant spiked with Thai basil, Chinese broccoli and spicy charred corn in addition to the long beans I chose. Fresh herb salad and Asian pickles are also on the roster in the garnish category. Pleasant surprises at a fast-casual concept.
The one negative: there are not enough seats to accommodate all the patrons who want to eat in. People were hovering over the eight or so tables, waiting for diners to get up so they could grab a seat. Others were slurping noodles and spooning up rice while standing in the aisles, often getting jostled by those walking in the door. A number of customers just gave up and took their lunch to a nearby park bench. Okay for early November, but that might be a bit chilly in winter.
That aside, my heart now belongs to ShopHouse. Although I like Chipotle's Mexican menu items, my noodle bowl seemed healthier and fresher with brighter flavors. Maybe it's because beans, carnitas and barbacoa are just heavier to begin with. Or maybe it's because Chipotle hasn't introduced much new to the menu, and no matter how much you mix and match the super ingredients, it's getting a little monotonous. Can't wait until a ShopHouse comes to a corner near me.