Do not be fooled. The newish Penn Quarter establishment Merzi is from top to bottom the same concept as Chipotle, and in most ways, the same food, a vaguely spicy lump of soggy carbs slathered onto a cardboard tray/trough, rather than packed inside a burrito.
Still, I got suckered in. It’s not like Indian food can’t be done fast and well at the same time. Naan & Beyond downtown certainly proves that inventive sandwiches and meat that exude convenience can also possess a touch of authenticity.
Merzi is the same assembly line format that so impressed me so much upon first seeing it in College Park in 2002 and now disgusts me nine years later. That’s on me, not Chipotle — people dig it, the food is less objectionable than plenty of other fast food options and is plainly a successful business (and publically traded) that chooses to locate in urban areas rather than bow down to drive-thru culture. But from the sleek industrial interior to the meal options, Merzi is simply trying to ride coattails of the innovator, offering no improvements and significantly less peppy service.
At Chipotle, one can choose from burritos, tacos or salads; at Merzi it’s Naan (not a sandwich, regrettably), rice, chaat or salad. Then the meats: Chipotle has chicken, steak, pork; Merzi with lamb, shrimp, chicken or beef. Sauce/salsa? Grilled veggies? Lettuce and tomato? The questions and options are the same. I half expected a load of shredded jack cheese to be slathered on my open-faced naanwich from the Merzi chain.
I say chain because that is where Merzi’s aspirations lie. Judging from the parade of 7th St. visitors who scanned the menu and took one look at my limp naan/salad/green peppers spread in a window seat before fleeing, those aspirations are optimistic.
Overseas travelers often boast of quick Indian-inflected food from London — surely a style of cuisine D.C. can aspire to. But Merzi should have looked overseas first rather than up 7th St. to Chipotle’s carnivorous Verizon Center shop. Because visiting Merzi unfortunately had me pining for a carnitas burrito — something I haven’t ordered for years. Pretty much anyone with taste buds will agree.