The comparisons to ShopHouse were inevitable. But Tom Yum District chef/owner Aulie Bunyarataphan says she came up with the idea to do a Chipotle-style spot long before the burrito chain debuted a Southeast Asian version of itself in 2011.
Bunyarataphan recalls walking into a Chipotle years ago and thinking: “I can do this with Thai food.” Inspired, she began experimenting with lunch specials at T.H.A.I. in Shirlington and Bangkok Joe’s, the modern Thai eateries she owns with husband Mel Oursinsiri, developing pared-down renditions of dishes that could be assembled to a customer’s specifications.
Being first isn’t everything. ShopHouse—which premiered in DC’s Dupont Circle and recently opened in Georgetown—serves noodle and rice bowls that are fresh but can taste muddled if you throw together the wrong ingredients. At Tom Yum District, bold, clean flavors shone through in every combination of bases (noodles, rice, or salad), proteins, sauces, and toppings we tried—it’s virtually impossible to wind up with a dish that tastes bad.
Unctuous “drunken” sauce, laced with chilies, perks up a mixture of nutty brown jasmine rice, jiggly cubes of organic tofu, and bits of omelet. Tender hunks of grilled steak taste great over pad Thai noodles with the house Tom Yum sauce—which mimics the flavor profile of the hot-and-sour soup by the same name. (Spice lovers should ask for a spoonful of off-menu, house-made chili sauce to amp up the heat.)
Health-minded diners can compose an excellent weekday salad from Asian mixed greens, juicy shrimp drizzled with white-wine/orange vinaigrette, cucumber relish, mixed herbs, and a topping of crunchy peanuts. Prices are attractively low—dishes max out at $7.95—and a selection of dumplings is on the way, so it’s hard to imagine Tom Yum District won’t be a hit among the neighborhood lunch crowd. With a location slated for downtown DC and a franchise plan for the future, it’s poised to give ShopHouse a run for its money.
A version of this article appears in the October 2013 issue of Washingtonian.