Local restaurant owner capitalizes on model, aims to make traditional Thai more accessible

WASHINGTON – The D.C. area has no shortage of fast-casual restaurants modeled after Chipotle’s popular assembly line-style service, a trend that seems to be booming and shows no signs of slowing down.

Cava Mezze Grill offers fresh Greek fare at its locations in Northwest D.C., Fairfax, Bethesda and Tysons Corner. Roti builds a Mediterranean menu around a salad, sandwich or rice base to feed hungry patrons at its handful of District locations. And ShopHouse — now a national establishment from the owners of Chipotle, which got its start in Northwest D.C. — offers a variety of Asian-inspired bowls.

But the crowded market of this style of dining did not discourage a local chef and restaurateur from adding to the mix, and the husband and wife duo says their concept still sets them apart from their competitors.

Chef Aulie Bunyaratapan and restaurateur Mel Oursinsiri opened Tom Yum District, a restaurant that serves up fresh and fast Thai cuisine, in June. The eatery serves customizable rice and noodle bowls in the heart of Rosslyn.

While the growth of assembly-service restaurants hit its peak about a few years ago, Bunyaratapan and Oursinsiri, who also own Bangkok Joe’s in Georgetown and T.H.A.I in Shirlington, say they’ve been working on the concept for Tom Yum District for several years.

“It was about 10 years ago that we thought we would like to do a noodles shop with limited service, quick and convenient — just like noodle shops on the streets of Bangkok. But we couldn’t refine the concept to fit, so we opened Bangkok Joe’s,” says Bunyaratapan, who grew up in Thailand.

Bunyaratapan says the model of restaurants like Subway and Chipotle allows customers to eat customizable, fresh food. She believes the key to keep customers returning is to use a variety of high-quality ingredients in an innovative fashion.

To mirror the flavors served on the streets of Bangkok, Tom Yum District offers traditional beverage options, such as roasted coconut juice and Thai beers, as well as a house-made chili and lime paste and a house-made green sriracha sauce to top its made-to-order bowls.

Bases for the bowls include options of jasmine rice, pad Thai rice noodles or a mixed Asian salad, and protein options range from grilled sesame ginger glazed tofu to grilled shrimp with a sweet chili sauce. Cilantro, basil, mint, sprouts and relishes add a fresh finish to the top of the individual Thai creations.

For Bunyaratapan and Oursinsiri, opening a fast-casual option in a business-driven area, like Rosslyn, is all about making traditional Thai food more accessible and approachable.

“It has always been our dream to raise Thai dining from ‘mom and pop’ to the next level … With many concepts in mind, this one is out dream — to bring Thai cuisine to the area (in an) innovative, yet more approachable way. A more casual, easy and quick way to enjoy Thai food,” Bunyaratapan says.

The 49-seat restaurant is located at 1515 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington, Va.

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