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O.C.-based vegan Mexican pop-ups are having a moment right now

O.C.-based vegan Mexican pop-ups are having a moment right now
Taqueria La Venganza sells tacos with tripe, carnitas and other familiar fillings — all of which are actually made from a soy or a wheat base. (Photo by Sarah Bennett)

No animals were harmed in the making of the best new conchas in Santa Ana. Same goes for the best sweet tamales. Oh, yeah, the carnitas tacos are vegan, too.

The next revolution in animal-free cuisine is here, and it has nothing to do with the Whole-Foods-shopping, cold-pressed-juice-ordering, yoga-pant-wearing cliches of vegan past. Instead, it's a pop-up culture more aligned with the new wave of modern Mexican, a scene that is seeing both immigrant and their second-generation children rethinking what traditional Mexican food can and should be.

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There are about a dozen or so vegan Mexican chefs and bakers across the Southland who want to keep the nostalgia while eliminating meat, eggs and dairy from their food. And they pop up at farmers markets, dive bars and food festivals from Ontario to Santa Monica.

O.C. boasts three major players in this emerging scene, all from the Latino stronghold of Santa Ana. Here's what they're bringing to the table — instead of unnecessary fat and grease:

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La Vegana Mexicana​​​​​
Based out of the East End Incubator Commercial Kitchens in downtown Santa Ana, La Vegana Mexicana makes a dozen different kinds of vegan tamales.
Based out of the East End Incubator Commercial Kitchens in downtown Santa Ana, La Vegana Mexicana makes a dozen different kinds of vegan tamales. (Photo by Sarah Bennett)

Loreta Ruiz spent more than 30 years working in government security with a specialization in violence prevention. Now, the Mexico City native works full-time at Latino Health Access, and in her spare time runs La Vegana Mexicana with her two children out of the East End Incubator Commercial Kitchens at 4th Street Market.

Ruiz grew up with a vegan father, at a time when the benefits of plant-based diets were not as well known. Though she always ate meat, she decided to try a full vegan lifestyle after her daughter did at age 18, and soon discovered that so many Mexican dishes could easily be made without animal products. Her soft, lard-free tamales — stuffed with nopalitos in tomatillo sauce, mushrooms in chile guajillo, black bean and mole or various dessert fruits — never use mock meats and are sold at the Santa Ana Farmers Market on Sundays, in Alta Baja Market's refrigerated section and at vegan events across SoCal. instagram.com/laveganamexicana

Vegan by Victoria’s
Victoria's Bakery recently hosted a pop-up vegan food festival in its back parking lot, showcasing its animal-products-free breads and cakes alongside goods from several other Mexican vegan vendors.
Victoria's Bakery recently hosted a pop-up vegan food festival in its back parking lot, showcasing its animal-products-free breads and cakes alongside goods from several other Mexican vegan vendors. (Photo by Sarah Bennett)

Victoria's Bakery on Bristol Street used to be your typical panaderia y pasteleria — a bakery and dessert shop specializing in Mexican sweet breads and custom cakes. As recently as early last year, the strip mall spot also served juices, soups, tortas and tacos. Then, the owner's younger brother Earvin Lopez started making vegan versions of popular Mexican sweet breads and in the past few months the store underwent a renovation to reflect Victoria's new grab-and-go focus: Vegan by Victoria's.

Lopez makes veganized versions of about a dozen different pastry classics every day — from cookies to conos to cuernitos coated in sugar — along with vegan tres leches cakes, two kinds of flan and stuffed bolillo rolls. The crowning jewel is Lopez's vegan concha, a riff on the enriched bread topped with crumbly cookie dough that's ubiquitous in Mexican bakeries. Pliant and sugary in all the right ways, Vegan by Victoria's version is cholesterol — and cruelty — free while still conjuring all sorts of fond food memories of your local panadero. 709 N. Bristol St., Santa Ana; (714) 420-2464; instagram.com/veganbyvictorias

Taqueria La Venganza
Raul Medina started his vegan taco pop-up in Oakland, but is now back home in Santa Ana on Tuesdays at Mission Bar.
Raul Medina started his vegan taco pop-up in Oakland, but is now back home in Santa Ana on Tuesdays at Mission Bar. (Photo by Sarah Bennett)

Forget jackfruit and mushrooms and beer-battered avocados because Raul Medina makes vegan tacos for carnivores. Instead of finding vegetables that could serve as sufficient-but-boring corn tortilla fillings, Medina prefers to tinker with animal-free fats, starches and proteins until he re-creates the flavor and texture of meats he remembers from his grandmother's cooking.

His favorite tool in this effort is yuba, the thin film that forms on the top of boiling soy milk. Also called "tofu skin," it can be marinated and cooked to emulate everything from carnitas to chicharron to tripas, all of which he sells — along with vegan pozole, vegan quesadillas, vegan barbecue and more — at pop-ups in L.A. and O.C. Though originally from Santa Ana, Medina started Taqueria La Venganza in 2015 while living in Oakland, where he ran in local chefs' circles and earned acclaim as the first vegan taquero in the country.

The native son is back in his hometown to spread the gospel of health and vegan nostalgia with Tuesday pop-ups at Mission Bar and more to be announced soon. instagram.com/thevegantaqueria

SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.

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