By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
Since opening Wednesday after nearly two years of anticipation, Chop Shop Taco is quickly on its way to becoming Parker-Gray’s worst-kept secret.
The new fast-casual, chef-driven taco joint is the brainchild of local innovators Teddy Kim, Kris Garcia and Chef Ed McIntosh. From the decor to the menu, Chop Shop Taco draws inspiration from its previous life as an auto shop and the neighborhood’s criminal backstory.
Located at 1008 Madison St., Chop Shop Taco is part of the Madison Collective development, which is also home to Marlowe Ink, Grateful Kitchen Co. and Zweet Sport Total Fitness.
After acquiring the building about two years ago, Kim, a principal of Avanti Holdings Group, began looking into its past to garner inspiration for a future concept.
“One thing we like to do is find out a little bit more of the history of the building, the neighborhood,” Kim said. “Growing up here and going to T.C., I had a lot of friends who lived in the area and was able to talk to different people that had seen the property transition since [it was built in] the 1950s.”
One story Kim came across was about a gangster who had used the space for illegal gambling, a pool hall and a “chop shop” for stolen cars that were disassembled and sold for parts. Later, it had transformed into a used tire and auto repair shop.
Kim decided to roll with the gritty, illicit essence of the former chop shop and to pay tribute to the space’s automotive past.
“When we bought the building, it still had some of the original lifts and paint,” Kim said. “We tried to leave as much as we could so that you felt like you were in this secret garden, this hidden place. And that’s what a chop shop a lot of times is. It’s secretive. You’re not supposed to know about it.”
The restaurant’s bubble gum pink exterior, reminiscent of a stroll through Mexico City, immediately catches the eye of anyone within a 100-yard radius. Through the front doors, an ordering counter with major food truck vibes looks back into a stainless-steel kitchen. Under a doorway to the right, the rose hues of an old garage door tint a massive mural reading “Chop it up” that dominates the secret garden-inspired seating and bar area.
While they officially opened for business on Wednesday, the Chop Shop Taco team began luring in passersby a few days early.
“We just kind of, over the last couple of days, changed the ‘closed’ sign to ‘open’ and if somebody stumbled upon it, we’d let them in,” Kim said. “A lot of them said, ‘Wow, I don’t know if Old Town’s really ready for something this cool.’”
While converting the space into a restaurant, the team decided to leave the brick walls and concrete floors of the auto shop alone, while chopping up the old car lift – pun intended – and repurposing it into table legs. Other flairs like leather dining chairs that feel like an old sports car seat and plates reminiscent of hubcaps all point to the ghost of the garage past.
While the design is built on these touches of cars and garages, Kim said his true inspiration was something else.
“Instead of paying tribute to stolen cars or cars, we’re really paying tribute to the welder,” he said.
“The welder” is honored through details like the custom metal work of the bar’s foot railing and the antique spiral staircase, but more than just design, the concept of welding melts into the restaurant’s food and cocktail menus.
“It’s really the homage to artists,” McIntosh said. “Artists, everything from the quintessential painter or pot maker all the way to a chef or a welder.”
Before joining the Chop Shop team, McIntosh got his training at the Culinary Institute of America. He gained experience across the food scenes in New York, Miami and D.C. and launched Tortilladora from Union Kitchen before joining forces with Kim. In 2018, McIntosh, Kim and Garcia opened Alexandria’s first food incubator, Pendleton Carryout, at 807 Pendleton St.
When designing Chop Shop’s menu, McIntosh said he focused on the craft of flavor combinations.
“None of us are Latino, and we’re not going to pretend to be,” McIntosh said. “You’re not going to see enchiladas or burritos or nachos on this menu, we’re just going with stuff that really is enjoyable to cook. … We don’t have expectations of what we think we should be, we just have standards.”
As the restaurant’s name suggests, tacos form the base of the menu, and McIntosh’s rotating selection of meat, which ranges from leg of lamb to filet mignon, involves a three-day cooking process. He marinates meats for 24 hours, then uses braising and slow cooking methods that can take up to 12 hours. After cooking the meat, he leaves it overnight in its fat or juices before serving it the next day.
“When we serve something, it’s always next day,” McIntosh said. “That’s our standard. It lets all the flavors marry, all the ingredients get to know one another.”
From there, the tacos are served on fresh tortillas made with masa shipped from a farmer in Mexico.
“It’s really hard to find somebody in the DMV area that’s doing this from the old-world style in the way that she’s doing it. … It’s maker-to-maker, chef-to-farmer, that connection’s still there,” McIntosh said. “If you have pizza, you gotta talk about the dough, and you can’t have a great taco without a great tortilla.”
Besides the tacos, the menu also features a variety of creative snacks including fried rice cheese croquettes with huitlacoche, cotija, Serrano Salsa and porcini, and tuna with Peruvian chilled mango sauce, cilantro, corn nuts, fresh chile, scallion, lime and radish.
“All the ingredients get the spotlight,” McIntosh said. “We don’t call our guacamole ‘guacamole,’ we call our guacamole ‘avocado’ because it’s about Hass avocados that we’re … ripening in-house. We’re just taking pride in the ingredients.”
Kim said it’s rare to get dishes with such high-quality ingredients for such reasonable prices. Snacks range from $8 to $12, while tacos are two for $8 and three for $11. All dishes are served fast-casual style, with customers ordering at the counter, then waiting at the bar or seating area for their food.
Cocktail Director Jon Schott, general manager of The People’s Drug on North Alfred Street, also played with the welder theme while designing Chop Shop’s cocktail program.
“I really wanted to offer people something that they would be maybe expecting when they came in, but presented to them in a different and surprising way,” Schott said.
Each of Schott’s margaritas features a specific salt to complement its tequila, such as a Himalayan salt rim on the Paloma, or a sweet-and-savory caramel salt rim made from a mixture of salt and caramel hard candy on the King Louie.
“I have a fun job with those cocktails to, kind of in the spirit of an old chop shop, get really funky with some of them,” Schott said. “The old fashioned, for instance: Instead of a simple syrup, I use an IPA beer reduction as the sweetener for it, so kind of just like what you might be doing in a chop shop, mixing up a few elements of things to create one presentation.”
Similarly, Chop Shop Taco’s various elements, from the service and atmosphere to the food and drink selections, all tie together to create a new experience in Old Town.
“What we hope is that it’ll be this undiscovered gem,” Kim said. “When you think about a place with no TV and the quality you get for the price, that’s the same spirit that we are. [We’re] moving a little away from the typical bar and more into an elevated beverage and food experience.”
Get a taste of the Chop Shop Taco experience from 11 a.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday. The restaurant is closed Monday and Tuesday.