It’s hardly surprising that the success of Chipotle would inspire a slew of imitators hoping to cash in with twists on the streamlined, cafeteria-style formula of bowls and wraps customized with meats, sauces, and other toppings. In DC, Bethesda, and Tysons, there’s Cava Grill, a fast-food version of the local Greek restaurant group Cava (think lamb over rice with a dollop of tzatziki). Merzi in DC’s Penn Quarter subs naans for tortillas and tandoori chicken for carnitas. A year and a half ago, Chipotle founder Steve Ells opened ShopHouse in DC’s Dupont Circle, putting a Southeast Asian spin on his original concept and nursing hopes of another national chain.
The latest to arrive, the Indian-focused Spice 6, is the best and most fully realized of the bunch. The depth and pop of the flavors belie the slick fast-food setting.
Its chef, Upendra Thapaliya, claims more than 20 years in the kitchens of Nepal. You can taste that experience in the stewed, spiced chickpeas—sweet with onion and with a stickiness that testifies to slow cooking. They come with every order except pizza, but they’re so good, and so substantive, that I often find myself bypassing the putative main ingredients—unremarkable tandoori chicken, wan tofu cubes, even the lightly spicy hunks of lamb—and requesting an extra ladleful for my rice bowl or wrap (both $6.65 to $8.49). I also generally forgo the oily sautéed vegetables.
The curries also are special. The korma, made with cashews and sunflower seeds, is rich and creamy. The spinach brims with the taste of ginger. As with the brick-red tikka masala, it makes no compromises with heat.
The tandoor produces hot rounds of naan, which you can have turned into a pizza ($6.65 to $8.49): A minute or two in a conventional oven converts the fluffy disk into a thin cracker. Here again, it’s the gravies taking the place of tomato that give the pies their interest. A scattering of mozzarella and minced chilies completes the effect.
Spice 6’s concept may not win points for originality. But when it comes to grab-and-go, you can’t ask for much more than punch, freshness, and spice.
This article appears in the March 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.