Laughing in Disbelief
Jajaja Strives Towards Vegan Autonomy
by Stephen Troiano
I’m drawn to the inconspicuous, whether if that applies to people, places or restaurants. One of my favorite places to eat in Queens has no signage, and is hidden behind small phone-booth-sized businesses ranging from phone repair mechanics and jewelers. My restaurant alma mater, housed in a former auto body shop, proved sometimes to be difficult for first-timers trying to find the front door. And then there’s a friend of mine, who has a dream of opening up a slice shop in Hoboken that only has an order window (no tables, chairs or dining room). I rejoice when I discover someplace that strives to stay undiscovered, as if I’m playing my own personal scavenger hunt.
And then there’s Jajaja, which takes this idea and applies it to location, décor and cuisine. The Lower East Side, year old, plant-based Mexican restaurant formerly housed a Chinese bakery and a corner bodega. Remnants of the location’s past tenants still show, as the owners of Jajaja, Koorosh Bakhtiar and Nima Garos, kept the bodega sign out front as well as uncovering the building’s original walls and floor tiles, which date back to the turn of the 20th century.
Pedestrians still walk into Jajaja’s take-out section asking for BEC sandwiches and scratch-off lottery tickets still believing that it’s a corner deli.
The official name is Jajaja Plantas Mexicana, stated on their front door. Patrons walk right past, unfamiliar with what they’re about to get into. To the untrained eye and tongue, Jajaja might seem and taste like any Mexican restaurant. Menu items such as the Chorizo Burrito, Palm Carnitas tacos and Rojas con Crema can be associated with any other Mexican joint serving up spicy pork tortas or pollo enchiladas. However, if you look closely, there is no pollo, bistek or barbacoa listed anywhere in the menu details. Their chorizo implies the style and taste, but there is no pork. A carnivore, such as myself, wouldn’t have tasted the difference. Everything about Jajaja is plant-based, or in another word, vegan. A tribute to Mayan cuisine, which is historically been plant-based.
To further put their under-the-radar vegan menu into context, Koorosh and Nima told me a story of a group of construction workers coming in on their lunch break. They ordered, ate, and enjoyed everything they tried. When their meal was winding down, one of the guests walked past the door, asked what the word “plantas” meant, was given the honest truth and followed up with the question, “So what exactly did I just eat?!” They were all blown away that they inhaled and loved their vegan lunch, and one of the guys vowed come back and bring his vegetarian girlfriend with him.
This is the restaurateur duo’s first vegan spot to open up with plans on expanding Jajaja across the East River to Williamsburg. Koorosh, the vegan of the two partners (Nima is pescetarian), told me that it took him a while to fully research specific products if they qualify as vegan. He discovered that certain wines and refined sugar do not make the cut. For example, if you buy Domino branded sugar by 50 lb. bags, it is vegan, as opposed to the individual packets which are not. Some vegan restaurants zero in on a base product to use for their menu, but Jajaja does the opposite. Their menu consists of a variety of plant-based ingredients such as mushrooms, jackfruit and seitan.
I was graced to try a number of dishes. The three of us shared Nima’s favorite starter, the Sikil Pak, which is a Mayan pumpkin seed-based dip with habanero, cilantro, cinnamon and served with plantain chips. I can see why Nima raved and is proud about this unique appetizer. Served cold, it’s refreshing and full of flavor you’ve probably never tasted before.
Then came the tacos. We shared the Palm Carnitas, made with jackfruit, heart of palm, orange, salsa verde, and cilantro served on a blueberry and flaxseed tortilla as well as the Chorizo, made with radishes, cilantro, red pepper, onion and sour cream served on a turmeric tortilla. Both tasted as good as any traditional taco and I started to see why people can dine at Jajaja unaware of their vegan methods. I thought that the jackfruit of the Palm Carnitas pared well with the blueberry tortilla, another unique trait about their menu.
Lastly, I was surprised with a burrito smothered in two types of salsa and sour crème, painted to resemble the Mexican flag with a charcoal garnish in the center. It’s known as the Chorizo Burrito, packed with cauliflower rice, black beans and guacamole. We were joined by Jajaja’s head chef Ricky, a chef of seven years who previously worked at the vegan New York chain by CHLOE. He didn’t say much, possibly due to shock of how fast I was able to consume his tribute to Mexico wrapped in a tortilla. This was certainly not made to be picked up bare-handed, so I had to fork-and-knife it.
I said my thank yous and goodbyes to the staff for the conversations and, always, for feeding me (a hard feat to fully accomplish, but the burrito did the trick). As I walked out and crossed Essex, I turned to take one last photo of the outside to serve as a visual memento in case I forget it’s humble exterior. The shutters in the windows, the cigarettes – newspapers – candy deli sign, all nested under the fire escapes of this Lower East Side tenement building. A part of me wished I discovered Jajaja on my own. I wish I was a simple walk-in guest not knowing what to expect, only to be met with the same level of shock, eureka, and disbelief that a place like this strives to serve amazing Mexican dishes their own way.