By Rae and Troy Matthews
Tahoe is world renown as a recreation destination with some of the most breathtaking vistas on earth. Those of us who get to live here year-round know how lucky we are to call this masterpiece home. We at Elevation Eats believe that Tahoe’s budding food scene has the potential of becoming yet another crucial brush stroke in the masterpiece. For this edition, we sat down with Kai Crowe, owner and manager of Chimayo Street Grill. Chimayo is about to celebrate its one-year anniversary in Tahoe. In only a year, Kai and his team have created one of South Shore’s most unique new restaurants. Apart from incredibly delicious food (does there need to be anything after that?), Chimayo stands out because of their commitment to sourcing local food products and brilliant innovation through a unique concept: Mexican style smoked BBQ.
The story of Kai Crowe and his wife Susana Ornelas is starting to become a familiar one here in Tahoe. They are recent transplants from the Bay Area. They were both involved in the finance industry, but had dreams of opening a restaurant some day. When asked what finally motivated them to take the plunge, Kai replied, “Believe it or not, traffic… we were kind of sick of the hustle and bustle and traffic was a big part of that.” So they set out to find their slice of the pie, but commercial real estate in the Bay Area is, well, a tad expensive. As they broadened their search, they landed on Tahoe. “We love going up to Tahoe. What would prevent us from going there if the right opportunity was there? And it just so happened the right opportunity was there.”
Susana is from Guanajuato, Mexico, and so the couple originally imagined opening a Mexican restaurant. But as any Google search will tell you, there are already a few in town. They knew they needed a twist. “And that’s when we started smoking BBQ meat, and we bought two commercial smokers. We started taking the BBQ really seriously, and the more serious we took the BBQ the better our Mexican food got.” The concept grew organically from there. In fact, there was newfound freedom in this unusual approach. “Because we were building a new concept, there’s no limits. It actually got easier once we stopped labeling ourselves as a certain restaurant.” Now that they’ve broken the mold, they are free to just be…Chimayo.
Chimayo (named for a region in New Mexico that is famous for it’s heirloom chili peppers) is now part of the new Tahoe food scene. What Tahoe food scene, you ask? Well, the one that innovators like Kai and Susana are trying to create.
“I think it’s just getting out of its infancy, you know? The fact that restaurateurs are now meeting collaboratively to build things like Sample the Sierra. Sample the Sierra had three times as many food vendors [this year] than they’ve ever had. We’ve got to keep innovating. With groups like TRYP [Tahoe Regional Young Professionals]… driving innovation in this town, the food has to follow that innovation. If this town is going to attract innovative and cutting edge companies, you know the businesses have to be in line with that, so food absolutely shares a place in that.”
Their latest innovation on the menu: Smoked Corn-On-The-Cobb. It’s a simple but delicious addition to any meal at Chimayo. Inspired by the street food vendors in Mexico, the corn is smoked for two hours, coated in a Chimayo pepper mayo, and dashed with cayenne and Cotija cheese. Within weeks of unveiling it, smoked corn-on-the-cobb became one of the most popular items on the menu.
Local food sourcing is a high priority for Kai and Susana (and for Elevation Eats as well). “The reason it’s important for me is because I want those businesses to succeed, and I want the money that I make here to go back into this economy… That is very powerful, so I want to be able to do that with as many local people as I can.”
But sourcing locally is tough. The Crowes have to remain flexible. Many factors can affect a small business, especially at high elevations, and right now the demand for local meat and produce isn’t high enough in Tahoe to fund the resources needed to keep the food coming year round. When asked where their food comes from, Kai explains:
“All Over. We even use the Co-op… There’s also an organic farm out of Salinas called Rio De Paras, so I try to get as much produce as I can from them… Depending on business levels we use a local company called Bonanza for produce. We get our meat from a company called Sierra Meat here in town… We just recently redesigned our desserts around a local ice cream, ‘cause this guy has the most badass ice creams that I’ve tasted: Hoch Family Creamery. They’re in Genoa… So anytime I can build a partnership with a local company – oh we can switch to beer too – I bring in Coldwater Brewery, they will always have a handle in this restaurant. I bring in Alibi Ail Works, and given the… popularity and quality of their product they’ll probably always have a handle.”
While Kai comes from a background in the service industry, he says that they’ve had to learn the business of owning a restaurant from the ground up. And while they’ve picked it up fairly quickly, he says the toughest challenge is maintaining a solid kitchen staff, a problem he attributes to the local housing crisis. “One of the toughest things about owning a business in Tahoe is sourcing talented people… and keeping them. Which goes back to housing. I’ve had talented people; I’ve lost them because they are making [only] what it costs to live here. One hundred percent it all ties back to that.”
But despite these difficulties, business seems to be booming. Kai admits that it’s a combination of hard work and a little bit of luck. “You have to have a little luck… I met some really cool community figures right out of the gate, so that helped me. That I call luck… [and] working my ass off, my wife as well. There are still days where we’re here with the baby on our back serving tables. I am not removed from this business at all. We were willing to put in that hard work. And we still are.”
Chimayo reopened after a brief vacation on Wednesday the 23rd, and they have some brand new things in store. “We are doing giant turkey legs smoked table-side with charcoal and fresh sage.” We’ll be there.