For many Mexican Americans, the idea of Mexican food without meat can be a bit difficult to grasp.
“Growing up in a Mexican family, meat is like a thing,” said Juan Lisandro Ramirez. “Veganism is a long way off – especially coming from a Mexican family, even my family doesn’t get it.”
But as Ramirez, who is the owner and chef behind Penelope’s Vegan Taqueria, points out, local Mexican cuisine is rooted in plant-based foods.
“When they were the Aztecs, when they were the Mayans, before la conquista, think about it — their menu, their cuisine was, I think, 90 percent vegan/vegetarian,” Ramirez said. “Some of the recipes we have are passed down in my family, so it’s easy for me to say, oh, I’m going to make black beans, frijoles en la olla. I remember how my mother used to make it and how it smelled. So I’m trying to recreate that. Now with cake milanese, it’s breaded chicken, what can we do to replace the chicken?’
Ramirez said going vegan was part of an “awakening” for him.
“Having this lifestyle of being vegan is different things, you know, it’s not just health reasons, spiritual reasons,” Ramirez said. “I was drinking a lot and doing drugs and then I lost everything. One day I woke up and I was like, you know what, I’m either going to die like this or I’m going to make a change, right? I don’t want to die young, so from now on I will stop anything, anything that will kill me. After six months, I’m like, ‘Oh, I feel great,’ and it’s become my way of life.”
Ramirez said when he made the switch, he had trouble finding places outside the home to eat. So he and his wife decided to go it alone, selling vegan tacos at pop-ups. The Andersonville Penelope’s is their second physical location.
That same DIY spirit is what Carlos Luna and Bernice Vargas said inspired them to open their vegan taqueria El Hongo Magico, which offers mushroom tacos and tamales. Luna said their venture began with a healthy fear.
“I had been looking at losing 18 inches of colon for several years, so I was willing to try almost anything to avoid such an invasive procedure,” Luna said. “I was driven to a plant-based diet and I was lucky enough to have a partner like Bernice who said, well, let’s do this together. And we started cooking at home. It was a trip to Mexico City where we fell in love with mushrooms. We came home and started playing with them.”
Vargas said the trip reminded her of the vast diversity in Mexican cuisine.
“I went back to what my mom would cook for us and realized a lot of my flavors were plant-based, lenteja, calabacita, torta de papa, the potato cakes you make during Holy Week,” Vargas said. “It was easy to go back to those recipes and realize that something my mom made was so simple, so delicious.”
After a year in a ghost kitchen, El Hongo Magico is now part of the all-vegan food hall XMarket in Uptown. Vargas and Luna said they hope that increasing the visibility of veganism can show that it’s a delicious way to improve community health.
“I’m part of the veteran community,” Luna said, “and I see a lot of veterans who I believe could suffer a lot less if they could minimize things like inflammation, right? If they can minimize things like weight. And I’m not going to say that a plant-based diet will fix all the health problems they may be struggling with. But I’m willing to bet that a plant-based diet will help alleviate some of these symptoms.
Back at Penelope’s, Ramirez said that when it comes to vegan cuisine, taquerias like his are just the beginning.
“I think people want to live longer, they want to live a healthier lifestyle,” Ramirez said. “I think more and more vegan businesses will open in the future. This is the future.”