It’s been two-and-a-half years since the grand opening of Shouk, the plant-based Israeli street food restaurant located near Chinatown and the Convention Center.

In that time, it’s built a loyal following and earned several accolades. Both The Washington Post and Eater DC named it Washington’s “Best Fast-Casual Restaurant,” high praise in a city whose downtown sidewalks are full of fast-casual spots.

Shouk is a vegan restaurant, yet according to founder Ran Nussbacher, about 90 percent of its patrons are not vegan, “and about half of them don’t necessarily know that we are.”

“People aren’t expecting the depth of flavor, the satiation, the mouth feel. Vegan or not, they’re surprised,” he says. “The only people who need to know we’re plant-based are those who are plant-based themselves. But for everyone else it doesn’t matter.”

And it’s the delicious, innovative food that earns Shouk its reputation. Three menu items, in particular, are must-haves.

First is the Shouk Burger, regularly called the “best veggie burger.” In fact, it garnered national attention when celebrity chef Carla Hall declared it the “best dang burger I have ever tasted” on Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate.

Second is the Breakfast Pita. This pita is filled with an “omelet” made from chickpeas, mushrooms, potatoes and onions. Nussbacher says people love it, especially those who like breakfast any time of the day, and many patrons are in disbelief that the omelet is vegan. “A comment we hear often is, ‘Hey, we thought you were a vegan place. How come you’re serving eggs?’”

The third favorite is the Eggplant Burger, which is inspired by the Israeli fried eggplant sandwich sabich. The common belief is that sabich was the brainchild of Iraqi Jews, who piled Shabbat leftovers, including hard-boiled eggs, eggplant, potatoes, Israeli salad and a pickled-mango chutney called amba, into a pita. The name is said to be an acronym made up of the first letters of the words “salad,” “egg” and “eggplant” in Hebrew.

“Unlike falafel and shawarma that you can find across the Middle East, [sabich] is uniquely Israeli,” says Nussbacher.

Falafel, of course, would seem like an obvious menu item for a restaurant like Shouk. But Shouk didn’t add it to the menu until the fall of 2018. “People have been asking ‘What took you so long?’” said Nussbacher. “We were excited to showcase all the amazing things you can do with veggies, and we didn’t want to be labeled as a falafel shop. We wanted to build a reputation with other things, like the Shouk Burger, and wanted the falafel to be an addition to an already great lineup.”

Now that it’s on the menu, the falafel (which can be served in a pita, on a salad or alone as a side) competes with the Shouk Burger as the restaurant’s bestseller.

“We knew that when we [added falafel to the menu], we would do it in a way that was authentic to Israel—down to the ways the balls are prepared, and with the garnishes.”

To top off all those new offerings, Shouk has also opened a new location in DC’s foodie haven, Union Market. “We love the vibe. We love the neighborhood. And we’re growing with it,” said Nussbacher.

Perhaps the Shouk menu’s greatest offering, however, is how accommodating it is to a variety of diets. “We pride ourselves on making food that is whatever-your-diet-is friendly,” says Ran.

In fact, this past fall, it was certified kosher by DC Kosher. “The complaint we hear a lot from the kosher community is there’s not enough in the way of kosher options when you eat out,” said Nussbacher. “To be able to open ourselves up to a community that was hungry for our kind of food felt great.”

Whether you’re kosher, vegan or none of the above, Shouk’s menu is for everybody. Says Nussbacher, “For us, it’s all about making healthy, plant-based food accessible to as many people as we can and bringing flavors to market that I don’t think exist anywhere else.”

Shouk Mount Vernon Triangle, 202-652-1464, 655 K St. NW, Washington, DC, 11 am–10 pm daily. Certified kosher by DC Kosher.
Shouk Union Market, 202-313-7671, 395 Morse Street NE, Washington, DC, 11 am-9 pm daily. Certified kosher by DC Kosher.

Photos courtesy of Shouk.