This is part two of our interview with Sasha Raj, owner of 24 Carrots in Tempe. The Arizona State University graduate started 24 Carrots as a juice bar more than five years ago and since has grown the business into a full restaurant and bakery. On Monday, she dished on why she always tries to accommodate her customers' dietary restrictions. Today, she's schooling us on the real meaning of "chai tea latte."
These days, you can get 100 percent vegan, largely gluten-free, and mostly locally sourced food at 24 Carrots. The menu includes staples such as the Smokey BLT Club with house vegan bacon, avocado, onion, greens, tomato and garlic aioli, in addition to a handful of salads and entrées Raj creates each week. She takes her cues from whatever fresh produce she can get from her vendors and picks up her greens every morning from a nearby farm.
"It started as pure juice, and now it's pure food as well," Raj says.
But that doesn't mean you have to expect strictly vegetable flavor at 24 Carrots. Raj lets her creative juices flow freely, creating vegan alternatives to everything she can dream one up for. My fellow meat eaters might be hesitant at the sound of vegan coconut "bacon" (especially considering it's created by a chef who's never actually tasted bacon) but Raj somehow imitates the smoky, slightly sweet flavor profile just about perfectly. And the texture's not bad, either.
The self-taught baker also can whip up vegan or gluten-free cakes -- and if you have your doubts about vegan pastry, one bite of her frosting-less chocolate cake should quell them. She's working on some interesting ideas like a vegan eggs Benedict, with a runny "yolk" you'll be able to crack yourself. And eventually she'd like to add dinner and alcohol to the mix.
There's a lot on her plate for sure, but when Raj is feeling stressed, she reaches for a cup of chai.
"Chai is a very distinct way of saying 'tea'," Raj says, adding that saying "chai tea latte" is like saying "milk tea tea milk" to anyone familiar with Indian culture, where chai can only refer to spiced milk tea.
So the chai experience at 24 Carrots isn't anything like that box of chai tea bags you picked up at the grocery store. Because at 24 Carrots the chai masala, or spice mix, is made in-house, a special blend of spices including cardamom, cloves, and black pepper. And though the spices are mixed in advance, your cup of Assam tea will be brewed to order and then carefully topped with a layer of foamed milk (Raj will suggest a mix of almond and soy).
The restaurant recently moved from its original location in Chandler to the Tempe strip mall that houses Changing Hands and a Trader Joe's. The additional 2,000 square feet of space has given Raj plenty of room to continuing growing. She's already working on adding a strictly gluten-free baking space -- even then, she'll still have room to spare.
One place you think everyone should eat (that's not 24 Carrots) and why: FnB. Phenomenal food, lots of local love, and service that's impeccable. Everyone should go for a chance to get pampered by [owner] Pavle [Milic] and [chef] Charleen [Badman]. It's like going to the spa -- for your stomach.
Your favorite cookbook or food resource: Right now, I've been on a streak of fascination with the ayurvedic, healing properties of herbs and plants. "The Yoga of Herbs" and "Ayurveda: a Life of Balance" top my list.
Your favorite drink and where you like to get it: When I can get it, fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice with ginger and lime. It's amazing, light, and refreshing but hard to find. My current fave libation is the vegan horchata at Joyride Taco -- spiked or not, it's delicious!
One national/international restaurant you can't wait to try: Millennium in San Francisco. When I do go, I plan on wearing stretchy pants and eating all day.
Best advice for someone who wants to try going vegan/vegetarian/raw: Variety! Eat a rainbow of veggies and fruits, vary your protein sources and try to avoid falling into the rut of mass producing and eating the same meal every day. You'll get bored; we all would. If you're dabbling in veg/vegan for health reasons, remember that just because it's vegan doesn't mean it's automatically healthy for you. I mean, fries are usually vegan -- and we could, but certainly shouldn't, eat those for every meal. :)
One piece of advice you wish you knew when you started 24 Carrots: "Hey, Sasha, I know you're a juice bar now, but you'll be a restaurant in two years -- you should probably buy a stove. You're welcome."
What's the secret to a great chai?
- High-quality loose leaf, Assam tea
- Steamed or boiled milk. I don't like putting my milk in raw or cold, as you end up with a lukewarm tea. If you are using a milk with a high sugar content, I like boiling it. It adds a rich caramel flavor to your chai.
- If you'd like, fresh ground spices (ginger, cardamom, black pepper, and clove are a must for me)
- ...and just a tad bit o' sweet
One thing you want people to know about 24 Carrots: Our menu is created weekly using as many locally sourced ingredients as we can find. We keep our menu simple so that we can highlight Arizona harvests and flavors, so when we get great feed back on a dish or menu item, I love, love, love sharing that with our farmers and suppliers. They glow with pride at the beauties they harvest for us, and it's a pleasure to be able to tell them how much they're appreciated.
(Also, we're not a jewelry store . . . Carrot, not karat!)
Three favorite locally grown/produced ingredients and where you get them: 1. We get much of our greens (salad, juicing, sandwiches) picked daily from Harvest for Humanity. We are lucky to have them a half-mile up the street -- such a privilege and pleasure to serve their produce.
2. Ramona Farms Tepary Beans -- these little beans are packed with flavor and bring creamy, nutty flavor to our hummus. These are also a crop indigenous to Arizona, which makes it extra awesome to work with.
3. Medjool Dates and Oranges from Agritopia. Their dates are incredibly sweet and moist. We use them to sweeten nearly all of our desserts, and their oranges . . .aaaaaaaaah, so good. We hand-squeeze these beauties daily for our smoothies, juices, and menu. They are far and away the best oranges I've ever tasted.
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What's next?: Dinner! We're taking our time with this but look forward to hearty vegan, gluten-free dishes, cultured cheeses, cocktails, and more!
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: Nick LaRosa - Nook Joey Maggiore - Cuttlefish Country Velador - Super Chunk Sweets and Treats James Porter - Petite Maison Cullen Campbell - Crudo Mel Mecinas - Four Seasons Scottsdale at Troon North Meagan Micozzi - Scarletta Bakes Tyson Holzheimer and Joe Strelnik - Snooze, an A.M. Eatery Paul McCabe - T. Cook's at the Royal Palms Eugenia Theodosopoulos - Essence Bakery Cafe Eddie Hantas - Hummus Xpress Jay Bogsinke - St. Francis Dustin Christofolo - Quiessence Blaise and DJ Aki - The Sushi Room Sacha Levine - Rancho Pinot and FnB Andrew Nienke - Cafe Monarch Kevin Lentz - French Grocery Aurore de Beauduy - Vogue Bistro Justin Olsen - Bink's Midtown Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay