Shophouse (The New Chipotle)

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You should’ve seen the crowd at Shophouse on Hollywood & Vine, where I went to meet Zach Brooks (of Midtown Lunch and Food Is The New Rock fame) for lunch last week. The place was his suggestion because, apparently, he’s addicted to it. It’s a new concept from the folks that brought you Chipotle; whatever it is they did with Mexican food, they’re doing it here with Asian food (I say “Asian” food because it’s a combination of rice, protein, vegetable, and sauce which could describe various Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai dishes). Despite some lawsuits going on behind the scenes, it looks like Shophouse is going to be a huge hit. Here’s why.

First: see the crowd? This was only at 12:15.

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30 minutes later, the place would be totally packed. Here’s how things looked as we approached the counter:

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And here’s the menu that’s worth studying because one look and you’ll understand why Shophouse is poised to do so well.

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They’ve distilled the rice bowl experience down to the essentials: choose a carb (Jasmine rice, brown rice, chilled rice noodles or a salad, which isn’t a carb, but go with me here), choose a protein (chicken, pork and chicken meatballs, steak laab or tofu), add a vegetable (green beans, broccoli, eggplant, corn), a sauce (spicy red curry, green curry, tamarind vinaigrette), a garnish (papaya slaw or pickled vegetables) and a crispy topping (peanuts, crispy garlic or toasted rice).

It’s the ultimate customizable rice bowl. Here, let’s place our order. I chose Jasmine rice and chicken…

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(They were pretty stingy with the chicken.)

Then I chose broccoli and tamarind vinaigrette.

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Finally, I picked papaya slaw and crispy garlic and behold: my completed rice bowl.

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For a fast food restaurant, this is really a glorious achievement. Who cares if it tasted a little generic, a little by-the-book? All of those components really do add up to something memorable if not quite authentic. And it’s relatively healthy. You can see why this place is so popular.

Zach, being the good food journalist that he is, ordered more for us to try. So this bowl is noodles with steak laab and eggplant.

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I found the eggplant a little leathery, but the steak was nice. The real winner of the bunch, though, were the meatballs:

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For a fast food joint, these were really impressive. Notice I keep qualifying everything with “for a fast food joint.” I guess that’s the main takeaway: if Shophouse starts to sweep the nation, it’ll be a terrific option to enjoy in airports, on the way to the airport, on the way back from the airport, etc. It’ll also be a quick, cheap, realistic lunch option for most people who work.

But is it a destination restaurant? Well, Zach keeps going back so for him it is. Me? I think I’ll stick to Thai Town, K-Town and exploring the San Gabriel Valley. But if I’m hungry and near Hollywood & Vine, Shophouse will be a serious contender. This place is gonna be big.

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