On a recent Sunday morning, a line formed outside Treehouse Bakery in Phoenix, well ahead of the popular vegan bakery’s 10 a.m. opening time.
When the door opened at 10 sharp, about half of the customers made a beeline for the pastry counter. The other half went straight for the carne asada breakfast burritos.
Carne asada might seem like an odd thing to find inside a vegan bakery. But this particular carne asada was made by Mi Vegana Madre, a metro Phoenix food trailer and pop-up kitchen that, until recently, regularly sold its vegan burritos and tacos at Treehouse Bakery.
José Gamiz, who operates Mi Vegana Madre with his wife, Leticia, says the concept of vegan Mexican food still confuses some people.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about what Mexican food is,” Gamiz says.
“Especially here, being so close to the north, it’s heavily influenced by northern cuisine. We want to show people that Mexican food is culturally diverse. That there’s the European influence, but there’s also a strong Native influence and African influence in Mexico.”
The couple, who previously ran a Mexican food import business — their specialty was importing mole — decided to launch Mi Vegana Madre in 2015, after noting the dearth of Mexican vegan and vegetarian food options in the Valley.
Veganism has been trending in recent years — in 2016, Google reported a pronounced spike in web searches related veganism — and Gamiz says he’s seeing more Mexican and central American vegan options pop up around the Valley.
These include Leafy Sea Dragon, known for its seitan quesadillas, and La PupuSarita, which sells vegan pupusas. And there’s also chef Silvana Salcido Esparza’s Barrio Café Gran Reserva, which recently reopened with a new menu with plenty of vegan options.
In Mexican food circles across the U.S. and Mexico, the growing popularity of veganism overlaps with a larger trend that finds Mexican and Mexican-American chefs delving deeper into the culinary heritage of pre-Columbian Mexico, a richly omnivorous legacy rooted in corn, beans, squash, wild greens, cactus, nuts, and chiles, and native Mexican ingredients like chia and amaranth.
The publication a few years ago of Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel’s Decolonize Your Diet, a book that’s equal parts cultural history, cookbook, and manifesto, feels like something of a milestone in the ongoing effort to redefine what is meant by “traditional” Mexican food.
Much of what’s popularly understood as “traditional” Mexican cooking — whether it’s the Sonoran-style mesquite-grilled carne asada beloved in Arizona, the slow-braised carnitas closely associated with Michoacan, or the beefy chili con carne you might find in San Antonio — is relatively new to the Americas. Before the Spanish introduced livestock, traditional Mexican animal protein sources included wild turkey, fish, and certain insects.
“For my parents, and I’m sure for a lot of other people’s parents, pork and beef was a luxury. It was expensive. That was stuff people ate on special occasions,” Gamiz says.
“Mexican food is really plant-based, from nopales to verdolagas, to all kinds of stuff that grows wild. As meat has become more accessible, it’s become more prominent. When you think of Mexican flavors, though, what really gives food its flavor are the spices.”
Gamiz, who chose to go vegan for ethical and health reasons, says that learning to cook Mexican food without the use of meat and animal byproducts has been a “culinary adventure,” one that’s pushed him and his wife to become bolder in the kitchen.
“We’ve gotten creative. For example, we were using hibiscus flowers, the actual flower, instead of shredded chicken, to make it with mole,” he says.
The business side of launching Mi Vegana Madre has come a little harder; Gamiz describes it as “baptism by fire.”
There have been ups and downs — most recently, the couple’s mobile food trailer incurred serious damage. When it became clear that the trailer would be out of commission for months, Gamiz reached out to Amanda Ohmer and Corianne Nelson, the owners of Treehouse Bakery, and Mi Vegana Madre was reborn as a Sunday brunch pop-up kitchen.
Until recently, Mi Vegana Madre dished out vegan burritos and tacos every Sunday morning at Treehouse. Gamiz reports that the Mi Vegana Madre food trailer is finally up and running again, which means the end of the restaurant’s months-long run at the vegan bakery. He says that he and his wife may return to sell at Treehouse “periodically.”
Because of the limited kitchen space, Mi Vegana Madre’s menu for the past several months has featured only three popular items: a breakfast burrito, breakfast taco, and a carne asada taco.
“For the rebirth of Vegana Madre, we’re looking to bring back some of the more popular tacos we had,” Gamiz says, which he says included a vegan al pastor taco, and tacos featuring traditional Mexican ingredients like nopales.
No matter where Mi Vegana Madre goes next, though, the menu will feature their vegan carne asada. The “carne” is grilled vegetable protein, a popular soy meat substitute, highly seasoned and sliced into thin, steak-like, stretchy strips. The faux carne is bathed in a savory red salsa, and topped with cilantro and chopped white onions. Dedicated carnivores won’t be fooled, of course, but it’s a well-seasoned taco that yields nice texture and flavor.
Mi Vegana’s breakfast burrito, meanwhile, uses creamy tofu to approximate the soft, eggy lushness of conventional breakfast burritos. Herbs, tomatoes, and pan-fried potatoes nicely bulk up the hearty burrito.
The dream is to move Mi Vegana Madre into its own permanent brick-and-mortar home someday. Gamiz says he would love to open on the west side, which he believes needs more vegan options.
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For now, Mi Vegana will be vending at next month’s Arizona Fall Fest at Hance Park in downtown Phoenix.
To see where else Mi Vegana Madre pops up, check out the restaurant’s Facebook page, facebook.com/MiVeganaMadre.
Mi Vegana Madre
Pop-up restaurant inside Treehouse Bakery
1348 West Roosevelt Street
Hours: some Sundays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Breakfast burrito $6
Breakfast taco $4
Carne asada taco $4