I happened to be in Washington, D.C. over the weekend, and while I was there, I ventured to Dupont Circle to check out ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen (1516 Connecticut Avenue NW, 202-232-4141), otherwise known as the “Asian Chipotle.” Like Chipotle, the fast-casual concept champions natural and organic ingredients and hormone-free meats in its pan-Asian offerings. And although there aren’t plans for nationwide expansion at this point in time, analysts have given a thumbs-up to the concept. Time will tell if it will come to New York City. For now (and for those of you heading to D.C. for Thanksgiving), a look at the first ShopHouse.
The concept works just like at Chipotle: Customers choose either a banh mi, rice bowl, or cold noodle bowl. Then they get to pick either grilled chicken satay, grilled steak, pork-and-chicken meatballs, or ground organic tofu with turmeric and other spices. Veggies include Chinese broccoli, eggplant with Thai basil, blistered long beans, and spicy charred corn. Then the meal is sauced either with tamarind vinaigrette, green curry, or spicy red curry, and then garnished with any of the following: Singaporean-style pickles, herb salad, green papaya slaw, toasted rice, crushed peanuts, and/or toasted garlic. Needless to say, there are a lot of permutations.
I opted for a chicken bowl over white rice with half long beans and half eggplant, sauced with red curry and topped with papaya slaw, toasted garlic, herbs, and crushed peanuts. The chicken was very tender, and the long beans had great wok flavor, although the eggplant tasted somewhat overcooked, as though it had been sitting around in the warming tray. There were many competing tastes going on, but it worked well, and is a good bang for your buck, since it’s only $6.59 for a huge portion. Is it amazing beyond belief? Not really, but it’s pretty good with bright, clean flavors and filling and cheap — that is, Asian Chipotle.
I also got the banh mi with pork-and-chicken meatballs ($6.36), which was OK, but not as good as the rice bowl. The sandwich came slathered in spicy mayo and showered with green papaya slaw and crushed peanuts. My two biggest complaints about the sandwich were that there was really too much bread for the filling, and that the meatballs were a tad cold. The meatballs themselves, though, were quite flavorful and packed a good amount of heat. I am not sure if I love the addition of peanuts and green papaya in a banh mi, but that’s more personal preference than anything else. Nevertheless, it’s interesting that the humble Vietnamese sandwich has come so far as to enter the fast-casual concept lexicon — a huge feat for Vietnamese cuisine.
Indeed, what makes ShopHouse unique is that it’s doing a great job of introducing lesser-known Asian flavors and ingredients to the mainstream. The food is accessible to those who might not have a lot of experience with Thai, Singaporean, or Vietnamese cuisine yet simultaneously appeases those who do with flavors that aren’t significantly altered for American palates. For that reason, it’s worth a visit.