Monday, September 19, 2011

Shophouse - Dupont Circle

Shophouse is essentially Asian Chipotle, and I mean that literally (it is owned by the same company). It follows the same assembly line process as Chipotle, primarily slinging rice bowls, but also serving "banh mi" sandwiches as well. You can pick one out of four different proteins (chicken "satay," pork and chicken meatballs, grilled steak, and tofu); one out of four different carbs (jasmine rice, brown rice, rice noodles, or the banh mi); one veggie; one sauce; one garnish; and one topping (the banh mi restricts to you to only the green papaya slaw garnish and the crushed peanuts topping). While I normally avoid "Asian" restaurants that serve food that require me to make copious use of scare quotes in order to describe them (like just now in this paragraph), I suppose I can cautiously recommend Shophouse.

Now, my primary concern with this concept is whether all these different ingredients will taste good regardless of the combination chosen by the customer. Otherwise, you are going to end up with a "Slophouse" of discordant flavors swimming in your paper bowl. Luckily, at least, my selection of brown rice, meatballs, red curry, long beans, pickled vegetables (almost a kimchi like concoction), and crispy garlic worked reasonably well together. The red curry was just beneath the threshold of my heat tolerance and the pickled vegetables added quite a bit of kick as well. The long beans were also crisp and flavorful. Surprisingly, the meatballs were the least exciting part of the bowl, though they were still good. My friend ordered green curry with chicken and long beans and also enjoyed it (the green curry sauce, while milder, is still hot---my friend couldn't even finish his bowl).

But, on the other hand, there were some things I noticed that gave me pause. For example, the rice noodles were pre-boiled. I wouldn't claim to be an expert on "Asian" food, but I would assume that it is just about axiomatic among all cuisines, both oriental and occidental, that noodles and pasta should be prepared a la minute; otherwise they become a gummy, unappetizing mess. For some reason, I would assume that Shophouse has yet to discover a way to overcome the primordial laws of physics, so I would avoid the noodles. And, while I enjoy spice, I think it is inevitable that they will tone down the sauce eventually. While, with respect to a Thai palate, the spice is probably normal and authentic (I've had curries and papaya salads that were as spicy as this), there is no way that a mass-market chain restaurant will be able to get most middle class Americans to eat this regularly for lunch. It is just too spicy for the American palate. But, I can also see Shophouse retreating too far the other way and serving the same creamily confected unctuous sludge that one can find at any strip mall Thai restaurant in the lower 48. I truly hope that they try to make the sauces more approachable, but still retain significant heat.

For $7.50, I suppose you could do worse. And how many times can you eat Chipotle anyway?

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