Chaia, located on a quaint side street in Georgetown, offers plant-based tacos in a casual setting. You won’t find a more charming place to eat. It looks like George Washington dined here. The interior’s old brick walls will transport you back to 18th century colonial times. This is as cozy and nostalgic as it gets unless you’re eating at Mount Vernon. As one might imagine, Chaia used to be a woodworking shop.
The rear of the building overlooks the historic C & O Canal, which is usually even more picturesque but is currently drained for renovation. I spent many years biking its paths so it certainly brought back memories. Chaia is a couple blocks south of the main drag, M Street, where most of Georgetown’s restaurants bustle. But although slightly tucked away off the equally well-known hot spots on Wisconsin Avenue, word of mouth must draw in visitors.
Chaia was started by close friends Suzanne Simon and Bettina Stern. I reached out to them in advance of my visit and they could not have been more prompt or friendly in their response. After experiencing their positive energy, I was even more excited to visit. First impressions matter and they nailed it. I wasn’t surprised to learn they’re former food writers and educators.
In 2009, they began sharing their culinary skills by posting recipes from their own kitchen on a blog. They eventually took their talents to a tent at a farmer’s market near the White House. In November 2015, they transitioned from the tent to their current location. This female-owned small business is a success story that should inspire every aspiring entrepreneur and chef.
Chaia’s website is clean, friendly, intuitive, and welcoming. The concept is simple. Tacos. Several different options. Choose the ones you like. Eat them. Return for more.
Every taco is served on a hand-griddled corn tortilla, filled with veggies, and topped with hyper-local micro greens. You can watch the team make them as you wait. A taco trio will run you $11 or singles go for $3.75. The food comes from local farms and the vegetables are seasonal.
Real restaurant ingenuity is taking something that already exists on a large scale and turning it into something new. Suzanne and Bettina have done it by providing an innovative selection of tacos. It’s unlikely you’ll find their combos anywhere else.
When I entered Chaia, Suzanne and her team greeted me as if I was coming over for dinner. They recommended a trio of vegan tacos that included Sweet Potato, Carrot, and Smoky Collards. For an additional dollar, you can add Vegan Yogurt Sauce.
I watched as they cooked the tortillas on a comal–and what a difference it makes. If there’s a fresher taco available, I’ve never tasted it. It’s not messy and each bite is filling, tasty, and satisfying. When something dominated in taste, I was glad it did. I delighted in every bite as I watched the chefs have fun preparing the next round for a steady stream of regulars and out-of-towners. At the table next to me, they debated which taco was their favorite. One of them got it right when he selected the Smoky Collards.
The manager, Juan, later talked me into a Cinnamon Coconut Cookie. Actually, he just said, “We bake these fresh here.” D.C. is known for its strict gun laws. They may also want to put restrictions on these cookies. These little marvels should be on display in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I could eat 50. I returned later in the day and bought five more. They lasted as long as a two-year-old in an art gallery. I didn’t taste the coconut but who cares. This cookie is moist, fresh, and delicious–a powder keg of cinnamon wrapped in a donut masquerading as a cookie. John Adams would have found them fit for a Fourth of July celebration.
Chaia took me somewhere I’ve never been with a taco. And their philosophy sends a message to everyone where we should be when we eat: “Going back to plant-based diets is the best way for a sustainable future.” I get the sense that Bettina and Suzanne are really good people.
Juan, the manager, was equally personable. We talked about ways Chaia is making a difference in the community. I wasn’t surprised to learn about Chaia’s charitable work, donating their amazing food to Georgetown University charities to combat cancer and help sick children. Juan spoke passionately about their efforts to support Hope for Henry. He also told me the owners are philanthropic and care deeply about causes–as if I needed another reason to frequent this treasure of a restaurant.
The menu does include locally sourced goat cheese, feta cheese, and eggs on weekends. Since this dynamic duo emphasizes health and environmental sustainability on their website, I spoke to Suzanne about zapping those options and replacing them with plant-based alternatives. With the so much healthier, melting, delicious, indistinguishable, and climate-change friendly vegan cheese options available such as Daiya, Field Roast Chao, Treeline, Miyoko’s, Kite Hill, and Violife, there’s no need to use animals for food, even if it’s local.
Of course, Suzanne was very responsive and asked me to write down the names for her. I couldn’t be more impressed with her management. Regardless, Chaia gets major props for eliminating meat from their tacos–a rare decision in a restaurant. There are more than 2,000 Chipotle restaurants in the U.S. and only one Chaia. It should be the other way around. Chaia proves that we don’t need to put animals in a taco for it to be delicious.
Chaia’s portions are significant, the service is smooth, and the choices are affordable. The food is bold, unique, and colorful. This place is special. If you’re in the DC area, make eating here a priority. Just leave some Cinnamon Coconut Cookies for me.