Protein Bar in Penn Quarter
By Nevin Martell
Wednesday, September 26, 2012
A fully loaded Chipotle steak burrito contains more than 1,200 calories and 50 grams of fat. And that’s before you add a fountain soda or a side of chips and guacamole. Protein Bar, which opened its first Washington-area location in Penn Quarter at the end of August, aims to give the lunchtime crowd a more healthful alternative with its Bar-ritos, which contain half the fat and less than half the calories.
To help get the numbers down, all 11 burrito options use quinoa, the protein-packed grain, instead of rice. The Protein Bar does away with add-ons such as sour cream and pepper jack cheese. Its most popular offering, the Buffalo ($7.99), is moist and flavorful, combining quinoa with shredded chicken prepped with a slightly sweet house-made barbecue sauce, then topped with greens. Like everything else on the menu, it is made to order but takes only a few minutes to prepare.
The concept for Protein Bar came to 33-year-old Chicago-based founder Matt Matros about a decade ago, when he realized he was seriously overweight. He embarked on a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, which helped him lose 50 pounds over the course of the summer of 2001; he has lost an additional 10 pounds since then. The dishes and drinks the self-taught cook made at home during this regimen were the basis for the restaurant’s original recipes when the first shop opened in Chicago in May 2009. (The city now has five, and the menu has since been tweaked by corporate chef Phil Fox, who joined the company last year.)
The six quinoa bowls look small but are belly-fillers nonetheless. My favorite: a cradle of slightly wilted spinach filled with creamy, pesto-laced quinoa, a little Parmesan and bits of chicken breast ($7.19). A half-dozen salads are generously portioned, but the Chophouse ($9.99) was a letdown. Dried cranberries and bits of blue cheese
accented the chopped greens, but the beef was just a flavorless textural element.
Eight protein shakes with too-cute District-referencing names are on the menu, but they have disappointingly subdued flavors. A prime example was the Monumental Perk ($4.99), featuring espresso, chocolate and a house-made cocoa malt. The only notable component was the sweet silt that settled on the bottom and tasted more like carob than anything else. At least the 12-ounce drink has only four grams of fat and fewer than 300 calories.
Not everything at this bustling fast-casual eatery is diet-friendly. All bets are off if you opt to pick up one of the several baked goods, such as the oily peanut butter blondie ($3.49). The sweet treat contains 11 grams of saturated fat.