Chipotle Goes Asian: What To Order At ShopHouse
Eater LA has already shown a tease of the new concept by Chipotle that’s opening Monday across from the Arclight on Sunset Blvd. Now let me tell you a little about the food at ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen (that’s the full name), based on a preview visit this week.
There’s no hiding the fact that the concept is completely analogous to Chipotle’s assembly line: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You get a bowl, and you get it filled: with chopped lettuce, cold rice noodles, jasmine or brown rice, to start. Then you pick a protein, one veggie, one sauce, one garnish, one topping (it doesn’t look like there are extra charges for combining, but that’s sure to happen).
Meats include a chicken satay (chopped chicken, intense grill and lemon flavor); steak laab (crispy, a little oily and a little spicy); pork and chicken meatballs (very fragrant, tender and spicy-salty flavor) and a nice savory chopped organic tofu.
Veggies, all prepared vegan, are far from phoned-in: there’s a shaved broccoli, tossed eggplant and Thai basil, charred green beans with vegan nam prik pow (well, pretty much everything has the chili jam) and charred corn. Both curries (made with fish sauce) are complex, robust sauces, the red with a nice backburn. The garnishes, green papaya slaw, pickles and herbs are nice and crisp (well they were on this test day, obviously) and you can finish with a spoon of fried garlic, peanuts or toasted rice for some crunch. The tamarind vinaigrette is a bold dressing that stands up to the green papaya and pickles.
In addition to regular fountain sodas (cute Thai Coke sign), they have bottled artisanal sodas and teas, and will offer four beers when the licence goes through.
The two elements that make the strongest impression here are how fully flavored everything is, and how fresh tasting. Of course, the latter could change once they are in full swing, but if Chipotle is known for anything, it’s keeping ingredient quality high. I’ve written before about Chipotle’s impressive commitment to partnering with their sources, it’s a culture that arguably makes more of an impression on me than their food (not that I don’t like it).
Tim Wildin, the Director of Concept Development for Chipotle explained the origin of the new chain was simply his own memories of growing up in Bangkok, where simple ShopHouses, small family business who generally serve one or two dishes only, were often the best places to eat. As the idea grew, they combined those influences with some Singaporean and other Southeast Asian flavors and ingredients to come up with an idea that is relatively simple but certainly distinct from what you might compare it to—Panda Express or Pei Wei. In certain ways, the simplicity is appealing.
Collaborating on the recipes is Nate Appleman, the James Beard Foundation-awarded (ex A16) corporate chef for Chipotle, who was on hand to talk ingredients and show us around the kitchen, Nate gave me a lesson in wok handling (the ones they use are damn heavy), showed off a huge food processor that can crank out pounds of slaw, and made enough passing remarks to indicate a passion for doing things right. The kitchen has no freezers.
Wildin seemed almost apologetic about the fact that he’s having the two curries made for them in Thailand, because he found that the very same recipes just didn’t come out the same with the ingredients available here. Apparently they went to some trouble to find non-GMO organic tofu (their source is in Oakland, CA). Oh, and yeah, there’s not a single gluten in the joint –well, in theory anyway.
Certainly any Thai aficionado could pull apart the elements here and question one or another. Certainly one could go to Thai Town and find a more intensely flavored or regionally specific version of any of the dishes (but without the source quality, probably). Sure, while the red curry has some good heat, you could find much hotter at Jitlada. This is the kind of fast concept meant to serve something tastier and healthier and/or more consistent to people looking for change from ten bucks, in areas where options for this kind of food is slim.
The first ShopHouse actually opened in Dupont Circle, Washington DC (a well established leader market) almost a year ago. A second DC location in Georgetown, as well as two more locations here in LA (Santa Monica Promenade and Westwood) are due by the end of this year, if I heard right.
I’m not going to go so far as to say ShopHouse will shake the foundations of the fast concept category. But I will say that if there was one in my neighborhood, I would probably visit it. Frequently.