With the possible exception of burgers, few categories are as beloved in the fast-casual space as tacos. The versatile carrier has moved far beyond its Mexican roots to cradle everything from Korean bulgogi to chicken tikka masala. But despite this outpouring of innovation and affection, tacos have remained largely a carnivore’s delight.
That’s not the case at Chaia Tacos, where the tacos are the proverbial meat of the menu; all dishes are vegetarian, and all but one item—the Creamy Kale and Potato taco—can be made vegan. The restaurant is also entirely nut-free, and the only gluten-containing item is the craft beer on tap.
“All of those [attributes] make it easy to come if you have dietary restrictions, but we don’t think of ourselves as a dietary-restriction place. We just hit those modes,” says Bettina Stern, who cofounded the concept with Suzanne Simon in 2015. “We’re making it easier to have those yummy, delicious, healthier, more sustainable menu items at the ready. … They are the most luxurious item on the plate.”
At a glance, Chaia’s menu could be easily mistaken for that of a more upscale, sit-down establishment. Seasonal, locally sourced vegetables reveal their diverse nature, whether hearty in tacos like the Braised Mushroom, or refreshing as in the Citrus-Roasted Beets taco or the Sautéed Green Cabbage taco with watermelon relish. Aside from tacos, the menu includes a Roasted Celery Root Tlayuda entrée (black beans, feta, pickled apple, and pipián atop a duo of crisped tostados) and a Carrot Kohlrabi Slaw with sweet and spicy vinaigrette, jalapeño, and fresh herbs.
Given such enticing options, it’s no wonder that omnivores comprise a solid 80 percent of Chaia’s patronage, by Stern’s estimation. That widespread popularity proves the brand need not proselytize the inherent virtue of veggies to win a loyal following—something that Stern and Simon, both working mothers, can appreciate. “We’re just putting vegetables on your plate. We’re making them really delicious and hoping that they’ll convert those veggie-scared people who don’t know how to cook vegetables at their yummiest,” Stern says. “But we’re definitely not trying to tell you what to do.”
The two spent years serving veggie tacos at a D.C.-area farmers market before opening their first brick-and-mortar Chaia in Georgetown. This January, store No. 2 made its debut in a space about twice the size of the original; Stern hopes the bright atmosphere and extra room encourage guests to linger.
The second location also marks a significant upgrade in Chaia’s beverage program. While craft beer and wine were mainstays at the original, the new spot serves a signature margarita, as well as an Apple Shrub Toddy and Ruby Paloma (mezcal, grapefruit, lime, and ginger agave).
Up next, Chaia has locked down a deal for a kiosk in an upcoming food hall right in the heart of D.C. —a throwback of sorts to its early days at the farmers market.
Stern would like to take the brand nationwide but is still wrestling with what that expansion plan would look like. The founders have taken an especially careful approach to their business, leading Stern to question whether it could ever work in a franchise model.
Nevertheless, she sees potential for a concept like Chaia even in a market as pricey as New York City or one as saturated in vegetarian fare as California.
“I think our concept would go over really well there, because you’ve already got people who are eating a plant-forward diet. … The only concern about going to California—the veggie-and-fruit basket of the country—is that there is definitely more competition,” Stern says. “But I don’t believe there is anybody doing what we are doing.”