Rev Up Your Appetites
By Debby Critchley
Chop Shop Taco is now open in Alexandria’s Madison Collective at 1008 Madison. This fast/fine food restaurant and bar gets its name from the location, originally an auto body garage, and recycles much of the original hardware. The name is a play on the meaning of a body shop where cars were taken and chopped up into parts. The menu here is a ‘chopping up’ of various cuisines, welded together to form an entirely new style. Your meal is in the highly experience hands of Chef Ed McIntosh and Ben Malloy, General Manager, is there to ensure you enjoy your experience.
At just over 1000 sq. ft with 47 seats, the interior of Chop Shop Taco blends organic elements and earth tones with bright pops of color. The original garage floor has been resurfaced. Look closely and you can still see where the old car lift used to be attached to the floor. Pieces of the lift have been turned into legs for tables and chairs through custom metal working. Look closely at the outside of the garage door to see the remnants of the old painted tire sign. The garage door still opens, creating an outdoor space for the dining area. When closed, the pink tinged glass casts a rosy glow over the dining roomers inside.
Banquettes are reminiscent of the front seat of a classic car and dining room chairs feel like bucket seats in old sports cars. Smaller details like bathroom sinks, countertops, and lighting all hint at the garage of the past. Plates are patterned after old hubcaps and mirrors. Sit in the back of the dining room if you want a quieter dinner.
You place your order at the counter, select a numbered container of succulents, and find a seat at the bar or dining room while your food is prepared. Chef Ed McIntosh offers a rotating selection of meat and veggies in a variety of small plates and tacos. Tortillas are made in-house from fresh masa. The menu features creative small plates like the fried rice which is made to look like Italian arancini. The croquettes are composed of huitlacoche (an edible corn fungus), cotija cheese, serrano salsa, and porcini. The dish is topped with zesty green (ZG) salsa and zaatar onions. Who knew an Italian/Mexican/Middle Eastern arancini/croquette could taste so good! Veggie lovers rejoice! The small plate of smashed avocado is topped with a drizzle of serrano ash salsa and scallions. The avocado is both chunky and creamy and the serrano ash adds just the right amount of heat without burning off your taste buds. I’m not the biggest fan of mashed avocados (too much in Texas) but I went back for more than one dip.
The chef offers specials nightly. Ask if they have the fresh tuna tostada when you go. It is a mashup of a Poke bowl and taco with raw tuna, Peruvian chilled mango sauce, cilantro, salty sea fingers (like sea beans) fresh chiles, scallion, lime, and radish served on a handmade corn tortilla. The combination of fresh briny tuna, salty sea fingers, sweet musky mangos, and Mexican flavors are just amazing. You get a hit of heat, salt, brine, and fresh in each bite. Another special we tried was the duck confit taco. I’m a sucker for anything duck. Oh yum! The dish is another mash-up of duck prepared as a French confit seasoned with Asian star anise and Indian/Swedish/Middle Eastern cardamom, served with a delightful mixture of fresh veggies including jicama, onions, and red cabbage dressed with pineapple and apple juices and spices. ‘Chopping up’ these multiple flavors is a real winner.
The tacos are wondrous. The brisket is confited in beef lard with chile pasillas and topped with cilantro, a medium salsa of tomatillos and chile pasillas, zaatar red onion, and lime. The beef was so tender, moist, and flavorful. The toppings were just the right amount of heat and spice to cut the richness of the brisket. The pork taco is made with pork shoulder roasted in banana leaves with achiote. Topped with cilantro, fresh radish, a mild salsa, and quick pickle of red cabbage, and lime, the flavors are remarkable together. My favorite of the bunch is the chicken Yucatan taco. The chicken is slow roasted and cooked to a flavorful and juicy tenderness not often found in a breast of chicken taco. It is topped with the ZG salsa, a chayote-jicama slaw, and scallions.
Again, vegetarians are not forgotten here. The roasted mushrooms with halloumi cheese, dates, and pumpkin seeds are topped with mild salsa, scallions, and a quick pickle of red cabbage. Meat eaters and vegetarians will love these. There is a meaty sweetness to this taco that is highlighted by toppings. What is not to like. As long as we’re talking veg, this kitchen knows how to prepare and cook vegetables. The veggies served on the plates and tacos are fresh and seasonal. Every dish contains an enjoyable assortment, prepared exactly to match the dish being served. Cooked veggies remain crisp and flavorful. Seasonings enhance rather than hide the fresh vegetable flavors.
We did not see the dessert menu but we were served a moist and flavorful tres leches cake. It was made as a sheet cake and garnished with finger limes. It was moist without being soggy. The cake was flavored with almond – an unusual yet yummy variation on an already tasty Hispanic treat. Ask if it is available.
The full-service bar menu was designed by cocktail director Jon Schott of The People’s Drug. It features a wide variety of beers, wines, and cocktails – all designed and/or selected to fully support the menu’s flavors. The Paloma swaps grapefruit soda for Schofferhoffer Grapefruit Radler, mixed with El Jimador Reposado tequila and lime juice with a Himalayan salt rim. Now you don’t have to choose between a beer and margarita. The flavor marries the grapefruit beer and tequila masterfully. The Garden Grove is a delightfully fresh combination of El Jimador Blanco, jalapeno, mint, lime, and cucumber foam. Fair warning, the salt on the rim is habanero ash. The cucumber foam creates a haze of cucumber flavor throughout the drink. I would love to drink lots of these with a bushel of spicy crabs! How about a daiquiri? The Single Barrel Daiquiri is what a real daiquiri should taste like, not that sweet and sour confection that passes for one in many bars. The daiquiri features Cruzan Single Barrel rum, a green apple syrup, and lime juice. It’s as flavorful as it is beautiful. And, it packs a punch too. My favorite of the night was the Lavender French ’76 made with Smithworks vodka, lemon juice, lavender, and sparkling cava. It was fresh and light, and easy to sip.
Chop shop has its own House Mexican Style Golden Lager by Founders Brewing Company on draft along with bottles and cans from local and Mexican breweries. Expect micheladas all day, Cava throughout the year, and a full bar with a variety of agave spirits. Wine selections include sparkling, red, and white wines.
Have a fun time with friends and family at Chop Shop Taco. There are lots of dishes that will satisfy a multitude of appetites. Enjoy a cocktail or a Mexican soda, sit back, and relax over a delicious meal.