PHOENIX — “That’s not real Mexican food,” ‘’My grandma would slap you” and “sellout” are just some of comments Jose and Leticia Gamiz received when they started their pop-up vegan Mexican food business, Mi Vegana Madre, four years ago.
People saw them doing something new and took it personally, Jose Gamiz said. “We even had somebody write (online) in Spanish, ‘They’re probably not even Mexican.’”
Despite the haters, the couple’s meat- and dairy-free endeavor has built a following. It’s part of a growing vegan Mexican food industry in the U.S. that has seen Latinos take control of the kitchen and plant-based Mexican cuisine increasingly plant roots in areas with large Latino communities.
Las Vegas and Austin, Texas, each have at least a few eateries or food trucks that are exclusively vegan Mexican. Across Southern California, there are a slew of options, including a vegan panaderia peddling traditional pastries.
The vegan Mex wave now seems to be sweeping Arizona.
Mi Vegana Madre expanded into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale last year. It offers vegan takes on carne asada, al pastor and nachos with a cashew cream-based cheese sauce. Another restaurant offering vegan Mexican and Mediterranean dishes opened in January a half-mile away. In September, a third place opened in Phoenix, also led by a Mexican American family.
Keren Aguilar, 19, and sister Keyla Aguilar, 22, launched Earth Plant Based Cuisine in Phoenix’s hipster Grand Avenue arts district. The menu includes fish tacos, churros and soy chorizo (Mexican sausage) — all made in-house. They also have a plant-based BBQ sandwich, burger and hot dog.
While most American vegan restaurants offer a few basic Mexican-inspired items, the Gamiz and Aguilar families are trying to capture the array of recipes they grew up on.
“We didn’t want it to have a ‘vegan taste’ or be bland. We wanted it to have flavors, so our spices are very important to making it Mexican,” Keren Aguilar said.
Gustavo Arellano, a Los Angeles-based columnist and author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” said restaurants like Earth Plant Based Cuisine are bringing a level of authenticity beyond the “hippy dippy white vegan stuff like tempeh, or they get a taco and put cubes of soy in it.”
Arellano believes vegan food in Mexican and Hispanic cultures has blossomed as younger generations became inspired by ways they can cut animal products from cooking.
“What blew up the vegan Mexican movement was these pop-up vegan food fairs where you have not just Mexicans, but Central Americans,” Arellano said.
While some may say veganizing is misappropriating Mexican food, the country’s indigenous natives actually ate mostly plant-based foods, according to Arellano. Colonizers from Spain irrevocably altered the food culture with introductions of beef, lamb and pork.
“They don’t realize, if you’re real Mexicans, you’re not supposed to be eating this meat in the first place because colonizers brought it over,” Arellano said. “I eat everything, but I’ll eat vegan Mex if it’s good.”