For many Mexican Americans, the idea of Mexican food without meat can be a little hard to grasp.
“Growing up in a Mexican family, meat is, like, the thing,” said Juan Lisandro Ramirez. “Veganism is way off — especially coming from a Mexican family, even my family don’t get it.”
But as Ramirez, who is the owner and chef behind Penelope’s Vegan Taqueria points out, indigenous Mexican cuisine is rooted in plant-based foods.
“When the Aztecs were around, when the Mayas were around, before la conquista, think about it — their menu, their cuisine was I think 90% vegan/vegetarian,” Ramirez said. “Some of the recipes that we have are passed along in my family, so it’s easy for me to say, oh, I’m gonna do black beans, frijoles en la olla. I remember how my mom did it and how it smells. So I’m trying to recreate that. Now with a torta milanesa, it’s breaded chicken, what can we do to replace the chicken?”
Ramirez said becoming vegan was part of an “awakening” for him.
“To have this lifestyle of being vegan is different things, you know, it’s not only health reasons, spiritual reasons,” Ramirez said. “I used to drink a lot and use drugs and then I lost everything. One day I woke up and said, you know what, like, either I die like this or make a change, right? I don’t want to die young, so from now on I’m gonna stop everything, everything that’s gonna kill me. After six months, I’m like, ‘Oh, I feel great,’ and it became my lifestyle.”
Ramirez said when he made the switch, he had trouble finding places outside of home to eat. So, he and his wife decided to do it themselves by selling vegan tacos in pop-ups. The Andersonville Penelope’s is their second brick-and-mortar 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 tacos and tamales starring mushrooms. Luna said their endeavor began with a health scare.
“I had been looking at losing 18 inches of colon for a few years, and so I was willing to try just about everything to avoid such an invasive procedure,” Luna said. “I was led to a plant-based diet, and I was fortunate enough to have a partner like Bernice who said, all right, 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 back home and started playing with them.”
Vargas said that trip reminded her of the vast variety in Mexican cuisine.
“I went back to what my mom would cook for us, and I realized a lot of my flavors were plant-based, lentejas, calabacitas, tortas de papa, the potato cakes that you do during Holy Week,” Vargas said. “It’s been easy to go back to those recipes and realize something that my mom made was so simple, so delicious.”
After a year in a ghost kitchen, El Hongo Magico is now part of the entirely vegan XMarket food hall in the Uptown neighborhood. Vargas and Luna said they hope that increasing veganism visibility can show it’s a tasty way to improve community health.
“I am part of the veteran community,” Luna said, “and I see a lot of veterans that I believe can suffer a lot less if they can minimize things like inflammation, right? If they can minimize things like weight. And I’m not going to say that a plant-based diet is going to fix all the health conditions that they may be fighting. But I will be willing to bet that a plant-based diet will help alleviate some of those symptoms.”
Back at Penelope’s, Ramirez said when it comes to vegan cuisine, taquerias like his are just the beginning.
“I think people want to live longer, they want to live healthier lifestyles,” Ramirez said. “I think in the future more and more vegan businesses are going to open up. This is the future.”