Walking into the Bethesda Row pop-up of Chaia, the third location of a plant-based fast-casual taqueria co-owned by good friends Bettina Stern and Suzanne Simon, the captivating aroma of fresh corn tortillas on a comal, or flat griddle, fills the air. Those tortillas, Stern says, are the backbone of the menu’s tacos, quesadillas and enchiladas. “We have a person making them all day, rolling the masa [corn flour dough] into bollitos [little balls] and pressing them in a cast-iron hand press,” she says. “It’s wonderful theater.”
Chaia’s approach to vegetarian cooking—layering flavors to create complexity—is particularly evident in their tacos ($4.50 each; three for $13). Offerings include braised mushrooms with salsa roja and cilantro; scrambled eggs with black beans, paprika salsa, jalapenos and pickled carrots; creamy kale with pepper jack cheese, poblano crema, salsa verde and pickled red onions; and smoky collard greens with queso fresco, paprika salsa and radishes. One non-taco Chaia showstopper is nachos ($8.50)—crunchy tortilla chips baked with roasted sweet potato cubes, black beans and pepper jack cheese and topped with arugula pepita salsa, pickled onions and pickled cilantro-lime jalapeno slices.
Stern and Simon signed a one-year lease to take over the 1,100-square-foot former Häagen-Dazs space on Aug. 1 and opened the restaurant, which seats 20 inside and 12 outside, in September. Stern says they will pursue staying in the location.
The co-owners met in 2003 while living in D.C. Both had families with three young children. Sharing an interest in food and cooking, they started a food blog and then decided to go into business. Successful “farm-to-taco” pop-up classes at farmers markets in Washington, using vegetables from each market’s vendors, led to an invitation to open their own stall, which they did in 2013. They then put together a business plan for Chaia (the word means “life” in many languages, Stern says), raised money and opened their first brick-and-mortar store in Georgetown in 2015 and their second in Penn Quarter in 2019.
“We wanted to go into Bethesda for a long time because it’s a diverse place with people from all over the world,” Stern says. “It’s a neighborhood with healthy, fitness-minded people with whom our concept would resonate. Gluten-free, nut-free, vegan-friendly…we hit a lot of buzzwords. I think of us as vegetarian for carnivores.” Something you’ll find only at the Bethesda store is a kids menu, with items such as rainbow rice and beans and “tin foil hobo packs” with kale and tomatoes. “Bethesda is a great place to test fresh ideas,” Stern says.
Chaia Tacos, 7237 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-657-2452, chaiatacos.com
Comings & goings
In downtown Silver Spring, Miss Toya’s Creole House, a Creole and Cajun restaurant, will open in the spring.
Wesley Yao, who owns Hanaro Sushi and Poke Dojo in Bethesda and Kusshi Sushi in North Bethesda, will open another sushi restaurant, Kusshi Ko, in the former Gusto Farm to Street space in downtown Silver Spring by the summer.
Another food hall is coming to Montgomery County. Commas, a 13,000-square-foot space on the second level of downtown Silver Spring’s Ellsworth Place mall, will house 12 vendors offering Korean, Malaysian, Ethiopian, Salvadoran and Italian cuisine, among others.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House in downtown Bethesda closed on Dec. 24. TTT (Tacos, Tortas and Tequila), which opened in Silver Spring in 2018, closed in November. Two restaurants closed in October: Burmese restaurant Mandalay, which operated on Bonifant Street in Silver Spring for more than 20 years, and the Rockville Town Square outlet of French bakery Vie de France, after a 10-year run.