Changing the way Washingtonians eat tacos: Chaia’s philosophy and future plans

WASHINGTON — When former food bloggers Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon opened their taco tent at the FRESHFARM Market by the White House in 2013, friends and customers questioned their decision to exclude meat from the menu. Some even suggested they serve “just a little bit” of bacon or sausage crumbles as a taco topping.

But they ultimately went against that advice.

“We started without [meat] and found that we really didn’t need it; we decided that it wasn’t necessary,” says Simon, co-founder of the plant-based taco concept Chaia. “Why add it just to add something on that people think needs to be there?”

Now, just two years after Chaia’s launch, their veggie-only commitment is rarely an issue for the business’ new and returning customers.

“‘When are you coming out with your meat taco?’ That is never a question,” Simon says.

At Thursday’s lunchtime market by the White House, Chaia’s customers include everyone from market regulars, to nearby office employees to President Obama’s staff. (White House chefs Bill Yosses, Susie Morrison and Cris Comerford have all eaten at Chaia.)

On Sundays in Dupont Circle, Stern and Simon sell about 900 tacos in the span of four hours to the FRESHFARM Market crowd.

To keep up with demand for their vegetarian “farm-to-taco” concept, Stern and Simon are opening Chaia’s first storefront this summer in Georgetown.

Traditional tacos with a twist

Under Chaia’s market tent, Stern, Simon and a staff of about 20, grill homemade corn tortillas and stuff them with a variety of seasonal vegetables. The business’ menu, which consists of three different taco varieties, is constantly rotating.

“Everything is so driven by what we can get from the farmers,” Simon says.

Popular combinations include mushrooms with feta and a red sauce; zucchini and olio picante with farmstead cheese and radish; and creamy braised chard and potato, served with a green sauce. Microgreens and a chipotle yogurt sauce top the tacos, but even those are contingent on what’s available from local suppliers.

“This week we’re working with asparagus, and we’re tweaking our sauces and our garnishes to play off of something that is very seasonal right now,” Stern says. “So we will do this taco for a little while and then we will move into the next order of vegetables that are going to start popping up.”

Seasonal vegetables are the base for Chaia’s tacos, but Simon says the salsas, fresh herbs and grilled corn tortillas are what make them unique and tasty.

“They’re all sauces that we learned to cook in our home kitchens, really, and just also by loving to learn while we travel,” Simon says. “Getting to know a culture – food is such a good way to do that.”

Plans for Chaia’s new restaurant

When Stern and Simon open Chaia’s new restaurant in Georgetown this summer (it will be just below Wisconsin and M streets), they plan to make more than three kinds of tacos available. One thing that won’t change, however, is Chaia’s dedication to an all-vegetarian menu.

“Now we have lists and lists of what has come into season at certain times, so we can actually plan our menus in advance and have a pretty good sense of what we’re going to be making before things start popping up and growing,” Simon says.

Sticking to vegetarian tacos is something that Simon says is important to Chaia’s identity, and it’s part of the influence the two found while traveling in Mexico.

“They use a lot of squash; they use a lot of greens; they use a lot of corn. If you branch outside of what the American menu is [in Mexico], it’s a country that’s so rich in traditional recipes and cooking and seasonal food and fresh ingredients. … That’s kind of a side of Mexican cooking that we didn’t really recognize until our radar was on vegetables.”

Chaia’s menu at the new Georgetown location will also feature some seasonal side dishes, juices that make use of ugly fruits and vegetables, and locally roasted coffee. Stern says seasonal sweets will also be available.

“There are very few fruits, locally, in the middle of winter, but there will be things that we’ll work on to have some additional items,” says Stern about the planned dessert offerings.

Stern and Simon plan to work a Dupont favorite into the restaurant’s menu: a breakfast taco filled with a fried or scrambled egg.

The homemade grilled tortillas will still be featured at the Chaia storefront – Stern and Simon even built two hoods to accommodate the grilling, since it’s such an important part of the experience. “The theater of pressing hand-grilled tortillas is really lovely and the smell is delicious,” Stern says.

The new restaurant, located on the canal at 3207 Grace St., will also have a second-floor space that the two owners hope to use for special events.

“We’re excited that it’s slightly off the beaten path and kind of a little gem to search out, although clearly visible from many different directions,” Stern says. “We even have a little bridge leading to our shop.”

Tips for tacos at home

Stern and Simon’s best advice for making vegetarian tacos at home is to find your favorite in-season vegetables for the base of the taco, and roast or grill them. However, prior to putting them in the oven or on the grill, Simon says make sure you dry them off so they don’t end up steaming. Then, toss the vegetables with oil and plenty of salt.

“Vegetables are not going to be good if they’re just boiled and plain, or if you just cut them and put them on a baking sheet and put them in the oven and let them steam,” Simon says.

The two cooks say you can either make your own corn tortillas (they use a mix of masa, water, salt, and a little olive oil – a process that Simon says takes about 10 to 15 minutes), or use your favorite brand.

And they recommend using a creamy cheese, such as the FireFly Farms Allegheny Chevre, to add additional flavor and texture, as well as your favorite salsa and some fresh herb garnishes.

And of course, they say a farm-to-taco meal — especially one on Cinco de Mayo — is best washed down with a fresh margarita or a michelada.

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