Chaia taco lineup // Photo: Maya Oren

Power Plants: The Rise of Vegetables as a Main Source of Energy, Not Alternative Fuel

It’s no secret there’s been a recent uptick in healthy dining options in the nation’s capital. Plant-based and vegetable-forward restaurants have taken root in the District, and they’re championing the idea that healthy food can also be tasty food. From local expansions to international brands, DC is adding more and more vegetable-friendly options to an already growing list of new restaurants. Just don’t call it a trend.

Homegrown taqueria Chaia recently opened its second location in Chinatown this January. From slinging tacos at farmers markets to their first location in Georgetown to the newest spot downtown, owners Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon have always remained committed to utilizing seasonal ingredients.

“Our business really wants to get people to eat more vegetables more than anything,” Stern says. “Support your local farmer and eat foods in season. What grows together goes together.”

In addition to serving up seasonally inspired tacos, Chaia’s newest location offers a lineup of local brews, ciders and draft cocktails. The ambiance and new offerings are key to the restaurant’s goal of making vegetables more fun.

“[Ten] years ago, being vegetarian or vegan or going into a restaurant that focused on that had the perception [that] there was no joy; you were just stripping your life of all the good things,” Simon says. “But that’s all changing with places like Chaia. We’re trying to make vegetables fun.”

Another component of their business model? Sustainability. Leftover tortillas are repurposed as the base for their spin on Oaxacan street food tlayuda. Cilantro stems are given new life as a sauce ingredient and discarded items are composted when possible. Hummus purveyor Little Sesame also looks to high-quality ingredients and seasonality for menu inspiration.

“The region that inspires our food is so built on fresh vegetables and big spices, and lots of ferments and pickles,” co-owner Nick Wiseman explains. “How we feel and shape the menus at Little Sesame is all around this idea of, at the end of the day, does it make you feel good?”

The hummus shop added its second location in Chinatown this March (the flagship spot is in Golden Triangle), where guests can order vegan options including their popular hummus bowls, pita sandwiches and dairy-free soft serve. More than just providing an exceptional in-restaurant experience, Wiseman and co-owner Ronen Tenne hope to build a community that transcends the walls of the physical space.

The owners even have an offshoot project, Wild Sesame, as “a way for us to strengthen the community we’re starting to build around these ideals of travel, outdoor cooking and storytelling.” It’s equal parts weekend getaway and outdoor adventure – an exploration of food and community.

“Food is the center, the focus of travel and this sense of adventure around food,” he continues. “We’re trying to really bring that spirit to Little Sesame and certainly what inspires us.”

H Street fast-casual concept Pow Pow made the switch to a completely plant-based menu last spring after two years in operation, and co-owner Shaun Sharkey believes DC is ready for more.

“I think DC has always been known as a city full of intelligent, forward-thinkers,” Sharkey says. “Plant-based food just makes sense in every aspect, whether you’re cutting back on a regular meat-based diet a day or two a week, interested in its benefits for the environment, or just interested in new flavors. Some chefs are really pushing the boundaries with plant-based food.”

Sharkey has a meat allergy and Chef Margaux Riccio has a dairy allergy; Pow Pow’s menu is a reflection of the foods they missed eating.

“Most of the menu items are developed that way,” he says. “This is more about fun food than anything else.”

The popular trolley fries are now topped with cashew cheddar and plant-based protein, the disco stick egg roll now features plant-based chicken, and their bowls have all switched over to plant-based chicken and seitan as protein options.

“We create all of the proteins and cheese in-house from scratch. Our focus is making good, plant-based food.”

Shouk founder Ran Nussbacher wants to remind the world that vegetables have been a mainstay of our diet for centuries, and it’s time to make a reconnection with the freshest produce possible.

“Eating a plant-based [diet] is a very positive experience, and it’s tasty and not lacking in any regard,” Nussbacher says. “I wanted to demonstrate that by bringing a compelling, appealing product that people would get hooked on, and that’s exactly what we’ve done with Shouk.”

The Israeli street food-inspired menu at Shouk’s Mount Vernon Triangle and NoMa locations features an oyster mushroom shawarma, fresh salads, pita and the famous Shouk burger. One of the healthier items on the menu, Nussbacher notes that despite chowing down on a burger, “You’re not eating health food; you’re eating delicious, decadent food that’s healthy.” And the recent addition of falafel to the menu has already proven to be a popular move.

“There used to be this perceived compromise that you could either get food that was really tasty or food that was really healthy, but you couldn’t get both,” the founder continues. “And what we do at Shouk – as well as others in the industry today – is eliminate that compromise and offer food that is exciting, tasty and healthy at the same time.”

Glenn Edwards, U.S. managing director of international fast-food chain LEON, shares a similar sentiment.

“I want to eat food I enjoy,” he says. “I don’t want to feel compromised in eating food that’s better for me. I want to eat food that’s delicious and oh, by the way, it’s better for me. Food should taste good and do you good.”

LEON opened its first North American outpost last summer on L Street and is hoping to change the way people view fast food. Fries are baked and the recently added, vegan-friendly LOVe Burger is quickly becoming a fan favorite.

Edwards says, “When we launch dishes, [we ask ourselves], ‘Does it taste really delicious? Would your best friend ask you for a recipe? Is it better for you?’”

It seems DC denizens agree that fast food can be good food; a second LEON restaurant is coming this summer. But you won’t find any marketing or advertising efforts to promote these restaurants as vegan joints. Instead, the focus is on preparing first-rate food offerings.

Chaia’s Stern notes, “You have to have a delicious product, and that’s why people are going to come.”

Regardless of protein preferences, get people in the door. And if they like what they eat, they’ll come back.

Chaia: 615 Eye St. NW, DC (Chinatown) // 3207 Grace St. NW, DC (Georgetown); www.chaiatacos.com
LEON: 1724 L St. NW, DC; www.leon.co
Little Sesame: 1828 L St. NW, DC (Golden Triangle) // 736 6th St. NW, DC (Chinatown); www.eatlittlesesame.com
Pow Pow: 1253 H St. NE, DC; www.eatpowpow.com
Shouk: 655 K St. NW, DC (Mount Vernon Triangle) // 395 Morse St. NE, DC (NoMa); www.shouk.com


Plant-Forward picks

Fare Well
Doron Petersan’s vegetable-centric bakery, diner and bar on H Street offers plant-based comfort dishes like Southern fried wings, pierogies and a steak platter made with Southern fried chickpea seitan. And don’t walk out the door without dessert: indulge in a brownie sundae and a daily rotating lineup of cakes from Petersan (of Sticky Fingers Sweets & Eats fame). 406 H St. NE, DC; www.eatfarewell.com

Flower Child
Championing feel-good food, the national chain landed in Foggy Bottom at the start of the new year. The fast-casual joint features bowls, salads and wraps that come as vegan and vegetarian-friendly in a hip, colorful atmosphere. 2112 Pennsylvania Ave. Suite 101, NW, DC; www.iamaflowerchild.com/locations/washington-dc

HipCityVeg
The Philadelphia import arrived in the District in 2016 and serves up a 100 percent plant-based menu including burgers, salads, milkshakes and sandwiches. There’s even a Philly steak, an homage to the brand’s hometown. 712 7th St. NW, DC; www.hipcityveg.com