Sustainability, in a Taco Shell

COURTESY ARIEL PASTERNAK A farm-to-table concept restaurant, Chaia Tacos uses freshly sourced, seasonal vegetables to make its vegetarian tacos, including the mushroom, creamy kale and potato tacos.

COURTESY ARIEL PASTERNAK
A farm-to-table concept restaurant, Chaia Tacos uses freshly sourced, seasonal vegetables to make its vegetarian tacos, including the mushroom, creamy kale and potato tacos.

Chaia Tacos, which opened on Grace Street in mid-November, is more than just a hip, trendy taco eatery — it’s a thoughtful, well-executed and delicious advancement in the way that we do food, putting an emphasis on fresh, local produce and sustainability.

After years of working together on their cooking blog, “Loulies,” Suzanne Simon and Bettina Stern began developing an idea for a taco business with a farm-to-table philosophy in spring 2013. Acting on their mutual passion for seasonal vegetables, the two visited Union Kitchen, the District’s own kitchen incubator, and received advice throughout the startup period. From this, the two created Chaia, which the owners explain is a mix between chaya, a Mayan leafy green, and the name chaia, which means life.

Soon later, Chaia Tacos began setting up stalls at farmers’ markets in D.C., including at Georgetown.

At Georgetown, the Chaia concept faced the ultimate test, where it truly had to hone its menu. The strict sourcing standards of farmers markets, combined with the diverse set of customers, challenged Chaia’s premise. Could Chaia source local, seasonal vegetables year-round and provide a delicious product while still turning a profit?

Of course Chaia can, and Chaia did. The company ultimately built a storefront in Georgetown. According to Ariel Pasternark, a member of the Chaia team, the company chose the neighborhood for a variety of reasons.

Ariel Pasternak, a 2012 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, met Simon and Stern at a farmers market, and after originally flirting with a stint in government consulting, has been with the company since and now is responsible for branding and business development.

“We love Georgetown,” Pasternak said. “It’s a neighborhood which is so beautiful and historic. There’s a confluence of people here, from the students to the professionals to the residents to the tourists.”

In an interview with The Hoya, Pasternak spoke with a marked conviction about the company’s philosophy, which is rooted in “being on the right side of change” and “creating a better food system.”

These values present themselves most tangibly in the detailed attention to local sourcing. The drinks on tap at Chaia Tacos consist of juices from Misfit Juicery, a startup from Georgetown students Philip Wong (SFS ’15) and Ann Yang (SFS ’15), and beers from local breweries. The tacos served are from local farms that source Chaia Tacos’ produce and grains. As local store owners wandered in, Ariel greeted them affably by name and they responded in turn.

COURTESY ARIEL PASTERNAK The interior of Chaia Tacos features tall windows and is brightly lit by natural skylight.

COURTESY ARIEL PASTERNAK
The interior of Chaia Tacos features tall windows and is brightly lit by natural skylight.

The interior of the restaurant boasts a beautiful space, naturally lit by a skylight and tall windows. The full-time menu, painstakingly field-tested, is lean and efficient, with five tacos and a short list of seasonal toppings and sides. Three of the tacos, the mushroom, the creamy kale and potato, and the garlicky green, are available year-round. The other two rotate depending on local availability of ingredients. Currently available are the winter squash and Moroccan carrot. For the indecisive, the “Market Trio” lets you pick three of the five taco options.

As many Georgetown students will attest, the tacos are absolutely delicious. The mushroom, the kale and potato and the winter squash are all excellent. The vegetarian taco concept truly works — each taco boasts a unique and delicious blend of flavor. Extra points go to the mushroom taco, topped with feta cheese, red sauce and cilantro, which, when combined with the cilantro-lime jalapenos as a topping, taste surprisingly hearty and strong, while still feeling light and fresh on the palate. All tacos are served on corn tortillas, which are phenomenally thick and tasty. If the beer and wine on tap are uninviting, the “shrubs,” which are different syrups added to sparkling water over ice, can be a tempting alternative.

Helena Vaughan (COL ’18), who has experienced both the market stall and the new store, said she enjoyed products from both.

“The storefront has been a great success — the charm, good service and aesthetic are all still there, but with the benefit of their tacos now being available all week,” Vaughan said.

In addition to the progressive and sustainable food and drinks, all of the food containers are compostable. Chaia’s organic waste goes to the same compositing location as Georgetown food services’ waste does, Maryland Environmental Service in King George County. Furthermore, Chaia Tacos’ employees enjoy a starting wage of $13 per hour as a show of commitment to sustainable labor practices.

Chaia Tacos’ food is top-notch, but the mission is truly noble. Simon and Stern have combined local sourcing, sustainability and great food in a way that both innovates and takes a huge step forward in the way the food industry works.

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