The mission behind the homegrown Chaia is simple: “We want people to eat more vegetables,” says Bettina Stern, who, with Suzanne Simon, started selling meatless tacos at Washington farmers markets six years ago.
Success prompted the entrepreneurs to open a 26-seat, bricks-and-mortar taqueria in Georgetown in 2015. This winter, they introduced a second, larger Chaia in Mount Vernon Triangle. Like the original, located on tiny, one-way Grace Street, the new place is awash in light and subscribes to the owners’ wish list of adjectives: The setting is “feminine, Bohemian and farm-driven,” says Stern, without being obvious about any of those qualities. Hive-shaped woven lights, white subway tiles and enough greenery to suggest that you’re outdoors make a pleasant backdrop for corn tortillas that are shaped, warmed on a circular griddle and outfitted with a host of pleasing fillings behind a glass kitchen.
The selections tell you what time of year it is. Cue the roasted butternut squash with crumbled goat cheese and chipotle yogurt, and crisp-soft shredded cabbage strewn with queso fresco and striped with jalapeño-charged tomato salsa. Find room, too, for the hearty mushroom taco made bold by its roasted tomato salsa. A trio of tacos costs $12 and is best rounded out with a side of black beans topped with diced jalapeños and crema. (Green rice with feta cheese and pepita has flavor in its favor, but the cupful I tried was dense rather than fluffy, packed in like ice cream: hard.)
The equal to the tacos are tlayudas, crisp tortillas spread with black bean puree and festooned with feta, watermelon radishes and diced pickled apple that doesn’t pull any punches. Zing! Have napkins nearby; the dish is a mess to tackle.
Some like it hot, and for them, Chaia offers bottles of housemade carrot-habanero sauce. A few shakes on a taco take them from good to racy.
Like an increasing number of fast-casual businesses, this one has gone cash-free. Stern recognizes the pros and cons of not accepting money and says “we give a lot of food away” rather than refusing service to those without credit or bank cards.
The drinking at No. 2 is as mindful as the cooking (hello, elderberry kombucha and spiced apple shrub!) and will soon extend to adult quaffs. “Beer and tacos go hand in hand,” says Stern. So do margaritas and tacos, which customers will also soon have the pleasure of enjoying together.
615 I St. NW. 202-290-1019. chaiatacos.com. Tacos, $4 each.