Meats are sizzling, tofu's frying, pots are clanging: It's game time, and the reality of a roomful of diners has hit Chop Shop hard. The chef has a word with someone on the line; she moves stations and the tempo picks up -- which is good, because a runner has been hovering nearby, waiting for the last few plates to appear so he can whisk them to their table. The kitchen action is everything you'd expect on a busy Thursday night; you just wouldn't expect it at a fast-casual place.
But Chop Shop, which opened this summer on a revitalizing stretch of East Colfax Avenue, is not your normal fast-casual -- at least not if your definition begins and ends with Chipotle.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Chop Shop
Run by Clint Wangsnes, a veteran chef with experience in Hawaii, Napa Valley and Miami Beach, the restaurant could easily moonlight as one of the trendy full-service spots that have taken over the city these past few years. Tables and booths are crafted of wide-plank barn wood and reclaimed fences from nearby Park Hill. Exposed brick adds character, as do bright-orange chairs, salt and pepper shakers fashioned from lightbulbs, and a shiny silver counter lining the wraparound windows. Even cocktails are batched and served with happy-hour nibbles such as sliders and hoisin-tamarind ribs.
Wangsnes, however, decided to go in a more casual direction, adding an order line, glowing computerized menu boards and clip-on numbers to facilitate food delivery. And he did so because he wanted to serve a group that's barely tolerated, much less emphasized, by most restaurateurs: families. "We had had a baby," explains the 38-year-old Denver native. "That's where the idea struck me. I live in the Stapleton-Park Hill area, and there were just no real options for the family...to get good food."
His idea seems to have struck a chord. In the few minutes it takes us to eat a cupcake, I see a kid climbing on a banquette, a dad rocking a baby, and a mom getting an earful about what happened at school that afternoon. It's the kind of scene that prompts tirades on food blogs and threats of no-kids-allowed policies. But in all fairness to families, it would be loud even without kids, given all the couples milling about by the open kitchen, waiting for tables. The littlest diners aren't any noisier or more poorly behaved than some of their adult counterparts I've encountered over the years, and that kid on the banquette sits down as soon as his mom returns to the table, drinks in hand.
Even if this sounds like your idea of hell, akin to tooth implants and sitting next to someone hacking on an airplane, you shouldn't dismiss Chop Shop out of hand. Instead, try coming later at night, when kids are somewhere else listening to a bedtime story. There's simply too much to like about this place not to give it a shot.
When Wangsnes launched Chop Shop, he brought with him a passion for the bold flavors associated with Zengo, the Latin-Asian restaurant he helmed for eight years. He also brought Zengo alums Eric Honas and Ai Yamamoto, sous-chef and lead line cook, respectively, which is why the open kitchen hums with intensity, not the calm of an assembly line. Taking a page from his fine-dining background, Wangsnes favors sous-vide cooking, a process of cooking vacuum-sealed food in a water bath at a controlled temperature, then searing it to order. The menu doesn't tout this technique, but you'll recognize it: Every protein we had (aside from tofu) exhibited the method's characteristic tenderness. Sous-vide cooking has its naysayers, who argue that food done this way lacks the Maillard magic that happens when meat meets heat -- but in most cases, I found that this kitchen more than compensated with a hard-enough sear.
Even when it didn't, flavor was never in short supply. Plated chef-style, with layer upon layer of vegetable, protein and toppings on handmade bamboo boards and pitchers of sauce on the side, entrees morphed into polyglot ambassadors. Slices of pork tenderloin were fanned out over butternut squash-potato purée, with yuzu-cherry chutney and jus singing with Chinese five-spice powder. The 48-hour slow-cooked short rib boasted a black crust that looked like peppercorns but turned out to be coriander, star anise and cloves; rather than waste a good thing, I decided to repurpose the peppercorn-hoisin demi-glace, pouring it over the whipped potatoes like gravy. (They were bland and needed it.) The Indian-style grilled chicken, a masala-marinated boneless breast served over sautéed spinach and dal-like lentils fragrant with garlic, ginger and cumin, quickly became the table favorite. But the fried tofu was a bit too worldly for the group, with South American chimichurri, regional Americana in the butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and quinoa, and an abundance of pine nuts. A simpler version talking up the charms of the sweet Thai chile sauce would have been easier to understand...and like. Keep reading for more on Chop Shop.
Other than those happy-hour specialties, which are offered daily from 3 to 6 p.m., the restaurant serves one menu all day. Whether you're there for lunch or dinner, the burger is a tempting option, with a patty made of short rib and top sirloin ground in-house and a bun from Grateful Bread, the supplier for many of the town's best restaurants. Like all of the sandwiches, the burger comes with house-fried taro, yuca and potato chips; parmesan-and-herb-dusted fries can be substituted for $1.50. The chips were the best part of our smoked chicken pastrami on rye; the cabbage, roasted corn and cilantro under the melted Swiss muddied what might have been a solid Reuben, if only it had stuck with sauerkraut rather than going with the Southwestern slaw.
Wangsnes, who early in his career worked at Nebraska steakhouses, had originally thought he'd launch a steakhouse here. But over time the concept evolved to what he calls a more "feminine style, less masculine, because we wanted moms and kids alike" to feel comfortable. I was glad to see several salads on the menu -- not because I'm a girl, but because I appreciate salads at lunch. The small-sized super chop, with baby kale, beans, quinoa, avocado and spiced pecans, was more than satisfying, especially when paired with a cup of onion bliss, essentially French onion soup hit with a touch of sambal.
It might have saved some confusion if the restaurant's name had evolved with the concept. When I suggested we meet at Chop Shop, a vegetarian friend hesitated, uncertain if she'd find something to eat. (She would have.) But even if the name is set, other things are not, such as the system for ordering dessert from the table rather than having to wait in line again, as we did when we wanted more salted-caramel-chocolate cupcakes. Apparently, the restaurant's mobile ordering system has been in the shop. And even if it had been working, the lone runner that night was so busy that I'm not sure he could have handled one more plate. But Wangsnes is on that, too; he's talking about hiring more staff, a sure sign of a restaurant that's beating projections. "We've been shocked at how busy we are," he says.
I'm not. At Chop Shop, Wangsnes is putting out food that has more in common with fine dining than the average fast-casual, with prices well above fast food but below what sit-down restaurants would charge. With meal deals like that, all Denver diners -- not just those with kids in tow -- should be hungry for more.
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Select menu items at Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery Pork tenderloin $13.75 Grilled chicken $12.75 Short rib, small $14.75 Crispy fried tofu $11.75 Super chop, small $7.75 Onion bliss, small $3.50 Chop Shop burger $10.75 Smoked chicken pastrami $9.75 Cupcake $5
Chop Shop is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Learn more at coloradochopshop.com.