Chipotle II? Testing ShopHouse

By Pete Williams

Grilled chicken satay

WASHINGTON -The sleek steel-and-wood architecture is similar. So is the assembly line front counter, the meat raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones, and the gourmet spin on familiar cuisine.

There’s no mention of Chipotle Mexican Grill anywhere at ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen, which the Denver-based burrito empire opened here near Dupont Circle in September. But there’s no mistaking the formula.

I’m a huge fan of Chipotle, having eaten there probably close to 1,000 times, almost one outing per each of its 1,200 outlets. I love the burritos, love CEO Steve Ells’ food-with-integrity philosophy, and love how such tasty food served fast can be high-performance health food if you load the burrito bowl properly (no tortilla or sour cream, light cheese, etc.)

That’s why I was  pumped to try ShopHouse, which has a similar build-your-own meal template, and is named for the buildings in Southeast Asia cities where families live above the markets they run on the street level.

At ShopHouse, everything comes in a bowl, a deeper, rounder bowl than at Chipotle. Start by choosing either meat (grilled chicken satay, pork & chicken meatballs, or grilled steak) or tofu over jasmine rise, brown rice, chilled rice noodles, or a salad.

Choose a veggie (broccoli, eggplant & Thai basil, green bean, or spicy charred corn), add a sauce (spicy red curry, green curry, or tamarind vinaigrette), a garnish (green papaya slaw, pickles, herb salad), and finally a topping (crispy garlic, toasted rice, crushed peanuts).

It requires a little more thinking than ordering a burrito at Chipotle, but it’s a pretty streamlined process. Or you can make things easy by taking any of the meats/tofu and having a sandwich.

I went with grilled chicken satay, broccoli, tamarind vinaigrette, pickles, and crispy garlic. The result was something spicier than a typical Chipotle burrito, requiring a drink refill, and something I’m anxious to try again.

It was a bit of a surprise not to find a line at ShopHouse late afternoon as I had an early dinner with my wife and father-in-law before attending a Washington Nationals game. Apparently the place is crushed during lunchtime.

I couldn’t help but think back to 2002, when my Core Performance co-author and fitness mentor Mark Verstegen introduced me to Chipotle in Phoenix when there were fewer than 200 stores. I wish that had inspired me to buy Chipotle stock when it went public in 2006 or in the immediate years thereafter, but if nothing else I gained an appreciation for how fast food can be health food.

ShopHouse interior in DC

Ells likes to say that the success of Chipotle is due not to burritos but because of the restaurant’s philosophies. “It works because of our system: fresh, local, sustainable ingredients, cooked with classic methods in an open kitchen where the customer can see everything, and served in a pleasing environment,” he told Fortune.com recently.

Do people want to eat Asian as often as Mexican? I probably would if there was a ShopHouse here in the Tampa Bay area, though I’d probably eat at Chipotle less. Such cannibalization apparently isn’t a concern. A nearby Chipotle on Dupont Circle hasn’t seen its sales suffer in the nine months since ShopHouse opened.

Unfortunately, ShopHouse expansion will be slow, with the second store not coming until September and also in D.C.

We won’t hold our breath on ShopHouse coming to Florida. Chipotle was 12 years old and had about 500 stores when it finally came to Orlando and Tampa in 2005.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait so long this time.

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