Located in northwestern New Mexico on the Colorado Plateau, the Chaco Canyon gained fame as the cultural hub of the Ancient Pueblo Peoples. From 900–1150 A.D., they outfitted the region with a wealth of ambitious architecture, including 15 major complexes of wood-and-sandstone dwellings that remained North America's largest buildings until the 19th century.
Located in the northwest corner of Seattle's University District, the Chaco Canyon Cafe mimics its namesake in its creation of an ambitious new world, but this endeavor extends beyond mere architecture. This past summer, Chaco Canyon joined the ranks of the few, the proud, and the ultimately politically correct by earning certified organic status (Maria Hines's Tilth is the only other Seattle restaurant so certified). To step into Chaco Canyon Cafe is to enter an idealistic utopia, the aims of which are laid out plainly on the menu: "We respect our planet, our community, our people and ourselves. We create simple, beautiful, and excellent quality food from fresh, organic local and seasonal ingredients in a warm and welcoming environment. We positively encourage our community by setting an environmentally sound example in every aspect of our café."
They're not kidding about "every aspect." Chaco Canyon's environmentally sound example-setting extends from the menu—which is 90 percent organic and 100 percent vegetarian, with a healthy selection of raw and vegan items—to the trash cans, which are nonexistent. In their place are plastic bins, into which diners place plates, utensils, and would-be garbage, which is hand-sorted by the staff to ensure that no stray bean goes uncomposted. The cafe offers a separate bin for recycling batteries. Above this bin hangs a sign reminding recyclers of the need to cover the ends of discarded batteries with tape. Beside the bin sits a tape dispenser. That's just the kind of place Chaco Canyon Cafe is.
My first visit was on a rainy weekday afternoon. My two dining companions—one vegetarian like me, the other an unrepentant carnivore—and I immersed ourselves in the cafe's warm, vaguely southwestern glow, achieved via the pale orange paint of the interior meeting natural light let in by windows spanning three sides of the room. It really is a cafe, with the dining area dotted with laptop-using coffee-sippers and orders placed at the front counter. Above the counter is the vast menu, a wordy cornucopia of salads, smoothies, soups, and sandwiches, many saddled with near-macrobiotic levels of fussiness. Case in point: the cilantro pesto pizza ($10.95), the centerpiece of Chaco Canyon's extensive Raw Menu and a reputed crowd-pleaser, with sun-dried tomato sauce, cilantro-walnut pesto, and herbed macadamia ricotta served chilled on a dehydrated crust of sprouted buckwheat, flax, and sunflower seeds.
With the goal of trying the most Chaco Canyon–y stuff Chaco Canyon had to offer, we ordered the raw cilantro pesto pizza and the popular Thai-peanut rice bowl ($5.95 small/$8.95 large). To hedge our bets, we also got the soup of the day ($3.70 cup/$5.20 bowl), a light potato-onion stew presumed to be the most benign offering. The Chaco menu can be off-putting, with Raw Bowls described exclamatorily but not very appetizingly as "Housemade sauces on a base of shredded zucchini or raw kelp noodle... or both!" and the Really Really Green Smoothie likewise a screaming "thick smooth salad in a glass!"
The cilantro-buckwheat pizza was eyed with suspicion by all—this food bears no relation to pizza as any life-loving person knows it. Notably, due to its rawness, it is served cold. But it was delicious, with each small chilled slice providing a few surprisingly flavorful bites of ground-nut-and-veggie what have you. We all agreed we'd be happy to reencounter this nouveau veggie bruschetta on an appetizer tray, where it would likely escape its unfortunate classification as pizza. Also good: the organic green side salad ($4.95, included with pizza entrée), a collection of highly fresh baby greens, tomatoes, carrots, and alfalfa sprouts tossed in an exactly tangy enough apple-garlic vinaigrette. The Thai-peanut rice bowl was a conglomeration of brown rice, fresh spinach, and house-made peanut sauce—basic components of vegan sustenance, executed here with the highest quality ingredients. While brutally simple, it was perfectly good.
The potato-onion soup, however, was problematic, a thin stew that seemed bland at first but came back screaming on the wings of heavy black and cayenne pepper. The aftertaste: tenacious.
I have a soft spot for vegan inventions, having dabbled in veganism for a year or so in college. Still, there's no denying strictly vegan cooking has its limitations, even in the hands of professionals. Chaco Canyon's tofu scramble sandwich ($6.95/$7.95 with soy cheese) tastes almost exactly like the Fantastic World Foods Tofu Scramble I used to make from a box mix, suggesting that either Chaco Canyon's chef is exactly as skilled as college-era me or (more likely) that scrambled tofu can only taste so good, no matter who's doing the cooking.
A similar déjà vu accompanied the veggie chili dog ($6.95). Here was a good old flavorful Field Roast sausage, served up on a nicely toasted Essential Baking bun, with a side of strenuously organic chili—and the results were again no better than what I throw together at home.
Maybe that's part of Chaco Canyon's appeal: a place ready to serve you the type of vegetarian grub you typically have to make for yourself. Unlike many of the city's vegetarian restaurants, which jump through hoops trying to craft meat-free food even carnivores will crave, Chaco Canyon wastes no energy trying to woo converts. The slavish devotion to organic veganism here borders on the kinky. Just maintaining a functional menu can be a high-wire act. "The seasonality of produce is a major complication," explains general manager Sarah Coyle. "At different times of the year, it's impossible to get organic food, so we have to keep changing the menu to be able to sell affordable organic." One can't help admiring such rigorous care. One also can't help wishing that such exemplary ideals tasted better. Still, if you've got a fetish for rigorously ethical food—where politics are as important as taste—Chaco Canyon is totally your scene.