Shophouse is the Best Asian Fast Food Concept Ever Launched by a Major Corporation (Sorry Panda Express!)
Even though the myth of Momofuku has made its way from New York to the west coast, did you know that Ssam Bar, the second and arguably most popular restaurant in David Chang’s empire, was originally a burrito joint? In 2006, following the runaway success of Momofuku Noodle Bar, Chang went the fast casual route- opening Ssam Bar as a Chipotle style burrito cafeteria in the East Village. There were flour tortillas and rice, but instead of carnitas there was pork belly. Roasted veggies were replaced by kimchi, and the “salsa” was Korean red bean paste. Keep in mind this was a full 2 years before Roy Choi started stuffing tacos with short ribs and quesadillas with kimchi. In other words, it was genius. Sadly I might have been the only one who thought so, and Ssam Bar was quickly converted into the restaurant it is today.
But those Asian burritos left a mark on me, and I hoped one day that Chang would avenge his detractors by relaunching his only failed concept. A concept I believe in with all my fat encased heart. Of course that is probably never going to happen, but when Chipotle first announced a few years ago that they’d be launching their own Asian concept called Shophouse, I found myself getting a little bit excited.
Midtown Lunch’s relationship with Chipotle has been quite the roller coaster ride. Their burritos go against everything I believe a great burrito should be, and we won’t even talk about quesarito-gate. But their work with Jamie Oliver and commitment to using sustainable and well sourced ingredients made me into a reluctant cheerleader. But could Shophouse turn me into a true fan? Could this be the lunchtime, Asian burrito I had been hoping for?!
Shophouse opened its second location in the country last week on Sunset on Vine, after what seemed like an eternity of work on their D.C. flagship (it was two years.) In other words, the tweaking is done enough for the concept is ready to be rolled out nationwide, and surprisingly Asian burritos and tacos are nowhere to be found. Neither are banh mi, which were on the original D.C. menu but ditched at some point. What you do get at Shophouse is the Asian version of Chipotle’s most popular option: the bowls.
First you choose your base, which can be brown rice, white rice, rice noodles or a lettuce and cabbage salad mixture. Then you move on to your protein, which will determine the initial price of your bowl. There’s grilled chunks of lemongrass chicken ($6.60), fragrant pork and chicken meatballs ($6.85), charred bits of citrusy sweet steak that they’re calling “laab” ($7.50), or ground tofu ($6.85). Then you choose one vegetable. There are string beans sauteed in a sweet and spicy chile paste, slices of broccoli sauteed with garlic, eggplant with thai basil, or charred corn. A second vegetable will cost you an extra $1. Still with me?
Then a sauce gets poured over the top of the whole thing (red curry, green curry or tamarind vinaigrette) before being topped with cilantro, papaya salad or pickled veggies, and finally fried garlic, peanuts, or crisped rice for texture.
Boom. So it turns out Shophouse is more Chego than Kogi- but that wasn’t even the biggest surprise. Here were the three biggest shocks…
1. The food is really freakin’ spicy. The little fire icons that pepper the menu are no joke. The green curry and the eggplant with thai basil, which each have two little fires, would be considered pretty spicy by most people. The four star red curry and string beans? We’re talking Thai town spicy. Is it as spicy as the more punishing dishes at Jitlada? Maybe not. But it’s way spicier than you’d expect from a corporate chain that will likely be at freeway rest stops in 5 years. In fact, if you don’t like spicy food at all, you’re going to find it a bit hard to put together a bowl of food that doesn’t burn just a little bit. And if you’re a vegetarian it’s practically impossible. None of the meats are spicy, but the tofu is, as well as all of the vegetables. The corn is the least spicy, but it’s also the least substantial of the four veggies. The tamarind vinaigrette only has one fire, but the curries have 2 and 4. Of course there’s a fashionable wall o’ sriracha available near the soda machines, but I seriously can’t imagine anybody needing it!
2. Not only are the curries spicy, they’re not that sweet! Did you hear that, Pei Wei? Shophouse is serving something on their menu that is not unbearably sweet. The steak and meatballs have a nice bit of sweetness, as do the string beans, so it ends up being perfectly balanced as a whole. Even some of the most “authentic” restaurants in Thai Town will toss a little bit of extra palm sugar in their green curry to make it more enjoyable to the whities. The fact that Shophouse holds back was another huge surprise.
3. But the biggest surprise of all was how not disappointed I was by the lack of burritos. Sure I dream of a day when there is a KFC/Taco Bell style Chipotle/Shophouse combo location that allows you to dump one of their bowls into a flour tortilla. But until then I’ll appreciate Shophouse for what it is- possibly the best Asian fast food concept ever launched by a major corporation. (I love you Panda Express, but it’s true.)
Just like Chipotle, it will probably take time to find the combo you like best. So we hit up Chipotle’s in house “culinary manager” Chef Nate Appleman to give you a head start. Here’s his go-to bowl at the moment:
Half salad/half rice noodles (yup, you can do that)
Steak Laab or Meatballs
String Beans w/ Chili Jam
Hard to argue with that.
Shophouse is planning to open a Santa Monica location and a Westwood location by the end of the year.
THE + (What somebody who likes this place would say)
- They use galangal?! And palm sugar!? Forget about “authenticity”, you’re not getting better Asian flavors from a corporate fast food restaurant than this.
- It’s the kind of Asian rice bowl I could eat 3 days a week and not feel disgusting.
- LOVE spicy food. So glad they didn’t tone down the flavors for the white people palate.
- Those meatballs are sooo good. So is the steak.
- I don’t like my Thai curries to be too sweet… these are perfect.
- Nate Appleman is the man! Of course this place is better Asian food than Chipotle is Mexican food.
- Some of the combos can result in some muddled flavors, so the trick to this place is finding the combo that you like best. (Just like Chipotle.)
THE – (What somebody who doesn’t like this place would say)
- You know this place is 5 minutes from Thai Town, right?
- This place might be good for fast food, but it’s still fast food
- I can’t eat spicy food and EVERYTHING is so spicy!
- Once you put the curry on top the whole bowl can kind of turn into a muddled mess of flavors.
- This place doesn’t hold a candle to Chego.
- Are they kidding with that wall of sriracha?
Shophouse, 6333 W Sunset Blvd