Just a month ago Jonathan Gold -- Pulitzer Prize-winning critic at Westword's sister paper, LA Weekly -- heaped praise on Steve Ells, founder and CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill, the company that got its start at a burrito shop on East Evans Avenue and exploded into a giant international company. Gold called Ells "the most innovative man in the world of food at the moment," pointing out the exec's commitment to sustainably raised ingredients and actual cooking in a fast-casual restaurant environment, both moves that have transformed parts of the industry and shown that doing the right thing and turning a profit aren't mutually exclusive.
The million -- or billion -- dollar question: Can Ells repeat the feat?
He's certainly trying. One try this year, though, has already failed: As a panelist on America's Next Great Restaurant, he and his cohorts put their faith and money into Soul Daddy, a healthy soul-food joint that flopped just weeks after it debuted.
That flub was quickly overshadowed by Ells's next move, when he opened his own second venture in Washington, D.C.: ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen. And there he set out to prove that Chipotle's principles aren't exclusive to Mexican food -- they can be applied to any cuisine, including Southeast Asian.
Is he right? I've long admired Chipotle's commitment to sustainability, real cooking and responsible sourcing -- that's what prompted me to work for the company years ago -- but I have a hard time believing any of those principles would have made such an impact if those Chipotle burritos hadn't tasted damn good to begin with.
ShopHouse's first challenge isn't getting the right ingredients -- there's no question it'll do the right thing on that front -- but using those ingredients to create food so good, people quickly start craving it, as they did at the original Chipotle. To do that, Ells brought on James Beard rising star chef Nate Appleman and Kyle Connaughton, formerly of the prolific Fat Duck, and the team worked together to build a menu.
In D.C. over Thanksgiving, I stopped in at the ShopHouse. The spot's set up much like Chipotle, with a line of containers brimming with meats and vegetables behind the counter. The drill is the same, too: choose noodles, white rice, brown rice or a banh mi sandwich; choose a meat; choose a veggie; choose a sauce; choose a finishing touch like pickled vegetables or toasted rice. Once you've done all that, you can decorate your meal with a few squirts from a bottle of Sriracha, grab a soda or Southeast Asian brand of beer -- I was particularly delighted that Beer Lao was on the list -- and dig in.
ShopHouse is definitely to Southeast Asian fare as Chipotle is to Mexican food: That is to say, not authentic. But also like Chipotle, Shophouse isn't dumbed-down, either. Curry sauces pack a punch of heat and so do the meats; the pickles are tart, fresh and made in- house, and the toasted rice shows how obsessed Ells is with details, right down to the last textural element.
It really pays off. Highlights included the chicken and pork meatballs -- which were crispy on the outside, juicy within and ideal on the banh mi -- and the beef, rubbed with spice and grilled a tender medium-rare, on top of a tangle of noodles and doused with fiery red curry.
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And I'm not sure I've had tofu anywhere that I've liked as much as the tofu at ShopHouse. This version was chopped fine and coated with turmeric, cumin and Thai chiles, which made it delightfully peppery. But the vegetables really made the meal. I couldn't pick a favorite between the green beans tossed with caramelized onions, charred corn and Chinese broccoli wok-seared with chili vinegar; each really enhanced a dish.
Manager Alice Porter told me they've been tweaking lots of things, trying to get them absolutely perfect. The bread for the banh mi, for instance, has already been changed out from when the doors first opened. While the official line is that the company will continue to concentrate on this one restaurant for now, rumors of not-so-distant expansion plans are too plentiful to not contain a grain -- or noodle -- of truth.
Here's hoping that Denver's on the map for any future plan. We gave Chipotle a running start, after all, and look where that is now. There's a good chance ShopHouse will get there, too.