ShopHouse's noodle bowl with organic tofu, long beans, papaya slaw, and tamarind vinaigrette. Photographs by Erik Uecke.
Chipotle's first-ever spinoff—ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen—opened today in Dupont Circle, and we arrived early expecting Shake Shack-level lines. But ten minutes before the 11 AM opening, there was one lone patron at the door.
"We've played it close to the vest," says Tim Wildin, Chipotle's director of concept development, about their attempt to keep the opening hush-hush. "Steve [Ells, Chipotle's founder] didn't want it to be part of the Chipotle machine."
Wildin says the idea was to open a "carefully curated" operation that follows the general Chipotle format—quick, fresh, customizable meals—but draws from the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Wildin, Ells, and other members of the ShopHouse crew went on a research trip to Singapore last year, sampling from actual shophouses—buildings where a downstairs market or restaurant is run by the family living above—and other eateries to get a feel for authentic flavors.
While the cuisine is different than what you’ll find at Chipotle’s ubiquitous burrito shops, the ethos of using organic meats and fresh vegetables is the same, as is the ordering format. Start with a bowl of chilled noodles, warm rice, or a spicy-mayo-drizzled bun for banh mi sandwiches. Top what you choose with tofu, skewer-less chicken satay, grilled steak, or pork-and-chicken meatballs spiced with ginger, garlic, and chilies.
The sandwiches automatically get a helping of green-papaya slaw and fresh herbs, but bowls move down the line for scoops of such cooked vegetables as Chinese broccoli, eggplant with Thai basil, and long beans; a ladle of red or green curry (or better yet, spicy-sweet tamarind vinaigrette); and garnishes like pickled cabbage, cilantro, and crushed peanuts. There's a nice surprise at the end of the line: beers like Singha from Thailand, BeerLao from Laos, and Dogfish Head 60-Minute IPA.
The sparse, 34-seat dining room is lined with teak-like wood, and is a cool contrast to James Beard Award-winning chef Nate Appleman's vigorous spicing. The food isn't necessarily "authentic" (a thick, chewy banh mi roll made us wish we were at the Eden Center instead) but nicely-charred chicken, bright pickled papaya, and light, zesty sauces are far better than some of muted Asian offerings nearby. As word gets out, you’re bound to see more than a one-man line.
ShopHouse South East Asian Kitchen. 1516 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-232-4141. Open daily from 11 AM to 10 PM.
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