I'm sitting at a tiny table in a tiny restaurant tucked above a subway station at the amorphous über-trendy intersection of Chinatown and the Lower East Side. I'm surrounded by what seems to be off-duty models with perfectly messy hair, and all I can think about is the urge to undo the top button of my jeans. That, and how I can somehow eat another bite of enchilada.
Ja Ja Ja (pronounced "ha ha ha," a noise several people in front of me made when informed of the hour-plus Wednesday-night wait time) combines two concepts so disparate as to almost be an oxymoron: vegan Mexican food. Mexican is arguably the hardest cuisine to vegan-ify, often leaning heavily on cheeses, meats, and animal fats for the hearty, recognizable flavors. While old-school vegan staples like fake meats and mayonnaises pop up on the Ja Ja Ja menu, they've also (far more interestingly) set about superfood-ifying Mexican staples. Black beans are fermented, for a complex, tangy flavor. Squash is battered with hemp and flaxseeds and smothered in chipotle almond butter to become a facsimile of a "fish" taco with a crispy crust that, to my trained tongue, came damn close to passing as fried. Tortillas are spiked with turmeric; the Tinga Tostada is served on a chlorophyll-corn base. The food and atmosphere are festive, not austere or rooted in deprivation; with matcha cocktails that still feature a generous serving of alcohol, there's an understanding that wellness is about celebration, tasting good, and enjoying life.
I chatted a bit with the founders to get the secrets behind their runaway success.
Vegan Mexican food is quite ambitious—where'd the idea come from?
It made sense for us to veganize Mexican food because historically, the ancient Mexican diet is plant- and grain-driven. We saw a void with no one diving in, a space for us to explore our menu in a fun, playful, healthy, and interactive way—something that vegans and non-vegans alike could enjoy.
Are you vegan?
One of our partners is a vegetarian, and two of our main childhood friends/investors are completely plant-based eaters. Whenever we would go out with them, there were lots of obstacles in ordering for the table, so we wanted to be a part of the solution by finding common ground for a shared experience (regardless of dietary choices).
What's the most popular dish at Ja Ja Ja?
Our Chayote "Fish" Taco—chayote being a common South American squash popular in Mexican cooking—has definitely been an item people can't get enough of, and we find our nachos pretty hard to beat.
What were the hardest Mexican foods to veganize? What solutions did you come up with?
The core of our menu is Mexican street food, most of which traditionally incorporates meat in various ways. That was our biggest challenge—making great-tasting tacos with familiar textures. In order to solve that problem we searched for vegetables that could not only hold up well with various cooking methods but enhance the flavors of every dish while remaining true to the root of the dish.
What are a few things people can do at home to make their cooking a little bit healthier?
Having fun exploring your kitchen is really the key. Cook with more vegetables in creative ways! You can alleviate the need for oil by using high-water-content vegetables, such as onions and mushrooms, and cut back on sugars by replacing them with natural fruits. We also try to use less-processed starches, and to incorporate charcoal into a few items to help the digestive system.
Want to get cooking? Here's how to make a gooey, crave-worthy vegan cheese, and a vegan chocolate mousse with a surprising secret ingredient!