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Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011 11:32 p.m.

Scott’s Spots: ShopHouse

This post was written by Hatchet food columnist Scott Figatner.

ShopHouse
1516 Connecticut Ave., NW

Jordan Emont | Assistant Photo Editor.

Chipotle’s new Southeast Asian concept, ShopHouse, debuted in D.C. as a pilot restaurant Sept. 15. Although Chipotle founder Steve Ells has done zero advertising for the fast-casual restaurant, a ripple of excitement is spreading through D.C. With a company like Chipotle, this new concept has the potential for changing food culture on an international scale.

Unfortunately, the venue does not exactly live up to these expectations.

If it were not for the storefront sign, I would have thought I entered the wrong place. The décor of ShopHouse, or lack thereof, is drab at best. The exposed outlets and wires complement the blank white walls while the naked lights, although energy efficient, lack energy all together. A line of Sriracha bottles, some used, is the only wall art.

The industrial restaurant does not evoke the small family restaurant or “shophouse” feel of Southeast Asia. Tim Wildin, Chipotle’s New York based director of concept development, defended the interior design by telling The Huffington Post that he and Chipotle founder Steve Ells “really wanted the color of the place to come from the food.”

The food was certainly colorful, with meals featuring tender rice, lime and ginger flavored papaya slaw and bright green herbs. But the eye pleasing entrées left a bit to be desired in terms of taste.

One benefit of the restaurant is that the vibrantly colored offerings are laid out cafeteria style so that putting a bowl together is easy. Simply choose a starch: chilled noodles, brown rice or jasmine rice. Then, choose grilled chicken, pork and chicken meatballs, steak or tofu. Top it with long beans, corn, eggplant or Chinese broccoli. Pick your sauce: green curry, tamarind vinaigrette or spicy red curry. Garnish with pickled vegetables, papaya salad or Asian herbs and add some crunch with toasted rice, crushed peanuts or crispy garlic. You can also try these in banh mi form, sandwiched in freshly baked bread.

While my meal was well presented, the components of my food lacked finesse and balance. Vinegary eggplant will make your mouth pucker. As far as flavor goes, the small pieces of tofu get lost in a deluge of spicy, tongue-shriveling sauce. With the overpowering heat and flavor of the sauces in your mouth, everything starts to taste the same – and I didn’t even try the spicy red curry.

Anyone willing to try these sauces should purchase some bottled young coconut water, the subtle sweetness of which can cleanse the palate. I filled it up with water twice before the meal was over to calm my scorched buds.

I’m sure many Americans could benefit from organic meats, multi-cultural food and the existence of tofu in their cities. As for me, I’d rather eat a 1,000-calorie burrito than eat at ShopHouse again.

While Steve Ells may have stuck his foot in the proverbial door of Asian food, it is unclear whether or not he will ever truly gain his footing.