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DonRocks

Chaia, Suzanne Simon and Bettina Stern's Fast-Casual Vegetarian Taqueria in Georgetown and Chinatown

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"This is it," I thought to myself. "This is the best taco I've ever eaten in my life."

I had read about the lines at farmer's markets for Suzanne Simon and Bettina Stern's taco stand, but didn't really know much about it. The other day, I decided to go see for myself, and I am *so glad* I found out early on about Chaia

First, the location: Chaia is on Grace Street, which is just a few feet off of Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown, south of Georgetown Park Mall - it's *right there* off Wisconsin, and even has a little sign directing pedestrians to "tacos and beer" - don't let the words fool you.

Having read their website before I went, I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for, and I also had a pretty good idea of what I was going to order. One thing of great importance: Chaia is a daytime-only taqueria: Tuesdays through Saturdays it closes at 8PM, and on Sundays, it closes at 6PM - it's closed altogether on Mondays. Please don't forget this, or you're going to show up and find a closed taqueria.

And they serve beer, too - in keeping with their "hyper-local" theme, the two breweries they sell are Port City Brewing and Atlas Brew Works. Don't make the same mistake I did: Donnie Boy just *had* to have a beer with his tacos, and for no particular reason, so I started off with a plastic cup of Atlas Brew Works Rowdy Rye ($5). Why in God's name I did this, I don't know - Chaia sells cold-pressed juice from Misfit Juicery and seasonal shrubs, and non-alcoholic beverages are what you should be paying attention to here, unless you *really* like hop-laden beers at the opportunity cost of something truly special. Read on for another reason not to succumb to the temptation of ordering a beer.

I got the Market Trio ($11), saving all of twenty-five cents from the í  la carte taco prices of $3.75. You should ignore this special, and order however many tacos you want, and get whatever sounds good. Still, three tacos were just about right for me, and gave me a chance to try three different versions, the top three on the list:

1) Mushroom with feta, red sauce, and cilantro

2) Smoky Collards with queso cotija, tomatillo salsa, and pickled radish

3) Creamy Kale + Potato with pepperjack, polano crema, green sauce, and pickled onions. On this one taco, I sprung for a fried, pasture-raised egg ($1.50, available weekends only) - I'm a sucker for eggs and potatoes together, since they conjure up memories of diner breakfasts.

I'd gotten my beer first, and nursed it throughout the meal. Note that you're not allowed to go out on the patio if you order beer, so if you want to eat outside, keep it non-alcoholic.

Wanting to enjoy the egg while it was hot and runny, I ate my tacos in the order 3), 1), 2), and as I was about one-third of the way into the Kale and Potato taco, I paused, and said to myself, "My God, this is the single greatest taco I've ever eaten." I know it's California-style, and that it's vegetarian, but I don't care - this was not only the best taco I've ever eaten, it was the best quick-serve food I've ever eaten (think what that's saying). The corn tortillas are unbelievable, and the combination of ingredients on this taco was perfect. Do yourself a favor and *get the egg* with this - I could not believe what I was eating, and even cheated a little bit by dripping some of the egg yolk onto the other two tacos (only a few drops, as I didn't want to flirt with ruining perfection).

Read that previous paragraph as many times as you need to read it - get this taco, and get it with an egg. In fact, get *three* of these tacos, and get *each one* with an egg. It'll set you back $15.50, and you'll love yourself (and me!) forever and ever.

The Mushroom taco was next up, and it was fantastic as well, with thinly sliced mushrooms that picked up everything because they were so thin. A few days ago, I complimented the Wild Mushroom Taco at Virtue Feed & Grain - allow me to paraphrase my dear friend Terry Theise: 'I like tortilla chips, and I like truffles, and I also have no problem recognizing which of the two is better.' It's the same situation here: Virtue's Wild Mushroom Taco was tasty bar food; Chaia's Mushroom Taco was a great and profound taco by taqueria standards - there's a huge difference between the two, and if you like mushrooms, get over here and order this - it would also be terrific with an egg.

Then came the collards, and this is why I should have gotten a cold-pressed juice: the collards are, by nature, bitter, and the rye-based beer was loaded with bitter hops - it was bitter on bitter, and literally left me with a bitter taste in my mouth, even as I was driving over the Memorial Bridge to get home it was still there, in a pronounced way. This is a *very* collard-greenish taco, and you have to really love collard greens to love this (think about the collard greens you get at barbecue shacks, without any of the pork they usually put in them). I'm not saying 'don't order this,' merely that you should be prepared for a blast of collard greens, and if that's what you're in the mood for, then you'll really enjoy it. 

As a boxed set, for $11, this was a fantastic meal, and I cannot recommend Chaia enough, both for vegetarians, and also for lovers of California (San Francisco, not Los Angeles) taquerias. This food was fantastic, and I contend that the first taco was the single greatest taco I've ever eaten in my life. I don't like putting pictures into my reviews, because I think it's lazy, and ruins the surprise for the reader when they get to the restaurant. However, in this case I'm going to make an exception, because this food is so beautiful, and tastes so good, that you'll be surprised no matter what I publish. Here you go:

Chaia.JPG

Enjoy your meal, and thank me later. Chaia is strongly initialized in Italic, and is one of the very greatest taquerias this city has ever known. It's also quite possibly the best quick-serve restaurant in DC, and happens to be the only one currently run by women. You're going to love this place.

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Just finished a delicious lunch! The kale, mushroom and squash tacos were so flavorful and FILLING. Excited to share with vegetarian friends. I need to return on a weekend to add the egg to my kale.

All seats were full at 1:15 but by 1:45 the rush had subsided.

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I've been twice in the last few weeks and likewise enjoyed it a lot. My favorites so far are the morrocan carrot and mushroom. I also liked the creamy kale. The only one I didn't like so much was the garlicky greens (possibly now the smokey greens that Don mentions above) as it was just too much leafy green for me. Love that the tortillas are made to order.  Definitely worth checking out and I agree 3 are a rather filling lunch.

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I love this place. The proprietors are so nice and the food is delicious. I remember really enjoying their potato and kale taco...super hearty and filling. And,they gave me some of their pickles, gratis, which provided some nice brightness to the food. It was a really welcoming experience.

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After I enjoyed my trio of tacos, i had to have another order of the rainbow carrot + pea shoot:  goat cheese, salsa de tomatillo crudo + fresh mint!

So delicious, i can't wait to return!

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I had their tacos at a couple of farmers markets prior to the opening of the restaurant and always found them to be good but uneven--for every two tacos I got there would be one that was bland.  They have fixed all of those problems with their B&M location.  This place is serving up some excellent food.  Did not miss meat at all.  The tortillas are excellent, the corn flavor shines through as a primary flavor rather than just a vessel.  We had the mushroom, zucchini, beet and smoky green tacos as well as the beans with jalapeno crema and the green rice with pine nuts.  Zucchini was cooked perfectly and crisp--was not a pile of mush.  Could not imagine beets in a taco being good but they definitely were.  I would not order the rice next time as there was not much flavor and if I had to make a criticism it's just that they have a heavy hand with the cotija/feta sometimes and in some bites it was overpowering.  Overall-- surprisingly, my favorite tacos in DC/NoVA.  I am a fan of taco bamba and I have to say these are much much better.  If they were in a different location there would be lines out the door.

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I can't wait to try this place out. I have a friend visiting that's a non-strict vegetarian. This will make for a great late lunch spot. 

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My officemates swear by the creamy potato/kale and the butternut squash tacos. I do enjoy the creamy potato/kale, but the mushroom/feta tacos are my #1. And I'm a big fan of the sour cherry shrub. If you're so inclined, you can zip across the street to DogTag Bakery afterwards for dessert.

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I have also been here twice and really enjoyed it! The tortillas are fresh, the toppings are nicely spiced, and their shrubs are also delicious. I found the zucchini taco to be a bit watery, but the yogurt sauce was great on it, and really pulled the dish together. I highly recommend for a light and healthy lunch. 

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Went to Chaia for the first time on Sunday and the tacos were absolutely amazing. 

I had the combo of 3 tacos of my choice: mushroom/feta/red sauce/cilantro; skillet corn/queso fresco/cilantro lime crema/sungolds; smoky eggplant/goat cheese/salsa verde/cilantro, all topped with microgreens, and with scrambled egg lining the tacos.  

All three were fantastic - corn and mushroom tied for favorite. The corn flavor was outstanding, and I've never had better sungolds (I dropped a couple off of my taco and was really sad because they were so good with the corn). The mushrooms were so flavorful and the feta and sauce were perfect foils. (The eggplant would have been my favorite anywhere else, as it was wonderful, but the other two were a shade even more wonderful.) I also had a side of black beans with jalapeno crema, which was nice - next time I might get that along with the green rice.

They have a nice outdoor seating area near the canal. The watermelon/lime/basil juice was delicious. And the (vegan) cinnamon coconut cookie was scrumptious. (I have been skeptical about vegan cookies, but after eating Chaia's and Shouk's, no longer.)

(Full disclosure - I now have a relative who works there. But I fully intended to go there before I knew she'd even heard of the place, after I read all the reviews here. The fact that she works there did not affect my review in any way, or the food or service that I got and paid for.)

I will be going back frequently!

 

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I know this has already been mentioned on the internet, but I was in Chaia tonight, and they confirmed that they're opening at 6th and I NW in Chinatown - the lease has been signed, and they're shooting for a December opening (I should add that I heard this from staff; not management).

On 7/1/2016 at 7:22 PM, Xochitl10 said:

My officemates swear by the creamy potato/kale and the butternut squash tacos. I do enjoy the creamy potato/kale, but the mushroom/feta tacos are my #1. And I'm a big fan of the sour cherry shrub. If you're so inclined, you can zip across the street to DogTag Bakery afterwards for dessert.

Your officemates have good taste - I just tried all five selections this evening, and these two stood out as being the best of the best.

Note: They only serve eggs on weekends!

---

A few observations: Tacos are now $4 apiece, and there's no reason to get the boxed set of three anymore, as it's $12 (really, there's nothing sacred about "three" versus "two" or "four"). Also, the tortillas weren 't that warm on this visit; I distinctly remember them being almost the same temperature as the fillings on my previous visit; on this visit, the tortillas were closer to room temperature, while the fillings were a bit warmer - this isn't a problem, but it's not *quite* as cohesive as I remembered it (like I said: *nitpick*). They have a Rosé on tap from Provence, which is both pale and bone dry, and it's a perfect match for any and all tacos - I was a bit surprised that two disposable, plastic cups came to, if I recall, $13.80 (I gave the cashier $20, and asked for $5 back), but I guess this is a deceivingly small-looking 4-5 ounce pour - this wine is very good, and we each got two glasses of it. One last thing: All the recycled-cardboard trays are to be separated and recycled again, whereas the other items (plastic forks, glasses, napkins) go into the composting bin - I'm not sure if disposable tableware is more environmental-friendly than washable tableware, but given that they're using disposable tableware, they're doing the best they can possibly do, and it's clear that they care about this.

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That makes me very happy!! I will be delighted to have lunches at Chaia during the week. Everything there is so delicious.

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19 minutes ago, Genevieve said:

That makes me very happy!! I will be delighted to have lunches at Chaia during the week. Everything there is so delicious.

Pleased to be of service! :)

I *almost* went to Shouk tonight to see if it was this good, but I hadn't been to Chaia in a long time, and it was just such a lovely evening - Grace Street is incredibly serene compared to what's transpiring one block north, and the walk down to Canal Street takes only a couple of minutes - this is the most beautiful part of South Georgetown. Just one block west of Chaia, you can sit in a park with benches, cross the canal on a pedestrian bridge, and even take your tacos there and enjoy them as a picnic.

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1 hour ago, DonRocks said:

I know this has already been mentioned on the internet, but I was in Chaia tonight, and they confirmed that they're opening at 6th and I NW in Chinatown - the lease has been signed, and they're shooting for a December opening (I should add that I heard this from staff; not management).

What with Bamba two blocks away, I Street will now be taco central.

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I went to the Penn Quarter location on Tuesday and was extremely happy with my lunch - so psyched to have this nearby for weekdays!

(same disclosure as before - I have a relative who works at the other location, but that does not affect my view of the food)

I had the taco trio and ordered two roasted butternut squash tacos (goat cheese, caramelized onions, chipotle yogurt, and mint) and one braised mushroom taco (feta, salsa roja, and cilantro)  - love the mushroom especially and would get two of that next time (or one of each plus a cauliflower if they had that - the other choices on Tuesday were vegetables I'm less fond of but many people like: roasted beet, creamy kale and potato, and sauteed green cabbage). Butternut squash was great, I just like the mushroom more and would get two of those to one squash.  Quality was top notch, the same as at the original location.

Also had green rice with feta and toasted pepitas, and a caneta cookie, and a lemon ginger shrub. They'll have more drinks, but only had the shrubs and iced teas on opening day. They will be adding some add-ons that are on the printed menu but weren't in stock yet -- beet-pickled egg (chiles, caraway, and apple cider brine) and cilantro-lime jalapenos.  

There is a roasted celery root tlayuda on tostadas with pipian and black beans and feta - I will have to try that. Definitely will try the sweet potato soup, and the pumpkin and spice cake (queque).

The space is quite a bit bigger than the original location, and is open and airy (lots of natural light). 

Adding this to my regular lunch rotation! 

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There was big trouble in little china(town) last night. 

We stopped into Chaia Chinatown for a quick bite.  We ordered two trios ($12 per), and with 5 tacos on the menu we were able to sample them all.  We doubled up on the braised mushroom taco.

The sweet potatoes in the sweet potato taco were a mix of cooked and under cooked, several cubes of potato were still crunchy.  The carrots in the rainbow carrot and pea shoot taco were at best half cooked.  The collard greens in the smoky collard greens taco were too fibrous to eat.  

The creamy kale and potato taco was the best of the bunch, and I would happily eat this one again.  The braised mushroom tacos were fine. 

I'm all for the plant-based cooking trend, but if vegetables are your focus they need to be cooked correctly.  

Unfortunately, it was a rough(age) night for Chaia.  

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I also was there last night and also agree that the carrots were undercooked.  They've been undercooked in the past too.  My cauliflower bowl wasn't great.  The kale and potato taco is one of the 20 or best dishes I've had in DC (especially considering the price).

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6 hours ago, Tweaked said:

Unfortunately, it was a rough(age) night for Chaia.  

26 minutes ago, funkyfood said:

I also was there last night and also agree that the carrots were undercooked.  They've been undercooked in the past too.  My cauliflower bowl wasn't great.  The kale and potato taco is one of the 20 or best dishes I've had in DC (especially considering the price).

"Way back when" Chaia was one, tiny little taqueria in Georgetown, there was almost no way this would ever happen. The early warning signs of over-expansion (sneer if you will, it's the truth). That said, whatcha gonna do?

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32 minutes ago, DonRocks said:

"Way back when" Chaia was one, tiny little taqueria in Georgetown, there was almost no way this would ever happen. The early warning signs of over-expansion (sneer if you will, it's the truth). That said, whatcha gonna do?

Don't go.  I stopped patronizing restaurant brands that have over-expanded or are high volume over consistent quality.

I am loyal to smaller restaurants that don't compromise and consistently deliver thoughtfully composed brilliant dishes with impeccable ingredients and exceptional execution.  

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18 minutes ago, dslee said:

Don't go.  I stopped patronizing restaurant brands that have over-expanded or are high volume over consistent quality.

I am loyal to smaller restaurants that don't compromise and consistently deliver thoughtfully composed brilliant dishes with impeccable ingredients and exceptional execution.  

Well, sure, but I was sort-of kidding when I talked about over-expansion - Chaia has done right by me (although I'm sure they have ambition, and yes, it may be an early warning sign, but still - Five Guys this isn't).

Fifteen-years ago, I made the mistake of thumbing my nose at all chain restaurants - from a consumer's viewpoint, that may have been correct, but who am I to deny these people a living? 

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3 minutes ago, DonRocks said:

Well, sure, but I was only kidding when I talked about over-expansion - Chaia has done right by me (although I'm sure they have ambition). 

I stopped patronizing Chaia altogether after quality issues I experienced at the Georgetown location during the time the Chaia team was ramping up for Chinatown opening.  No desire to even try Chaia Chinatown.

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1 minute ago, dslee said:

I stopped patronizing Chaia altogether after quality issues I experienced at the Georgetown location during the time the Chaia team was ramping up for Chinatown opening.  No desire to even try Chaia Chinatown.

You remind me of me.

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9 minutes ago, DonRocks said:

Fifteen-years ago, I made the mistake of thumbing my nose at all chain restaurants - from a consumer's viewpoint, that may have been correct, but who am I to deny these people a living? 

Same here. I still don't like most national chains, but I softened my disdain, as I noted here. Those people have families to feed too.

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Expanding a restaurant is like learning a classical piano piece in reverse.

When you learn a piece, learning 90% of it takes 50% of the time, and then learning the last 10% of it takes another 50% of the time. (It's actually more asymptotic than what I just wrote, but it's not a bad approximation).

When a restaurant expands from one location to two, it loses 50% of its quality. Then, it can expand pretty much endlessly while only having another 50% to lose.

I probably didn't make any sense there, but I at least understood what I was trying to say. :)

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