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Food

At Tehuanita 2.0, a vegan chile relleno changes a man’s life

Janelle Hu Chang and chef Richard Chang of Tehuanita 2.0
Janelle Hu Chang and chef Richard Chang own and operate Tehuanita 2.0, a vegan taco truck based in Echo Park.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

It’s late night in Echo Park. At Sunset Boulevard and Logan Street, the evening haze of traffic signals and passing car headlights gleams off the metallic roof of a little silver taco truck.

From the outside, Tehuanita 2.0 presents like any other lonchera, one of more than 3,000 licensed food trucks in Los Angeles County, many serving what the late Times food critic Jonathan Gold once called “the basic unit of consumption in Southern California”: the taco, dualistic marvel of complexity in the guise of three-bite simplicity, a canvas for innovation and a home base of deep comfort for Angelenos of all backgrounds, ages and property tax brackets.

This place just happens to be entirely vegan.

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“We didn’t start out plant-based,” said chef and owner Richard Chang, whose career includes time spent cooking at Animal, Jon & Vinny’s, Bestia and Church & State. A heart attack in his mid-40s led to a serious lifestyle recalibration.

“I’m going through a journey in my life right now, and I still want to cook delicious food, even if it happens to be vegan.”

Chef Richard Chang prepares vegan tacos
Chef Richard Chang prepares vegan tacos.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Cooking with vegetables is an intrinsic part of Mexican cuisine, and vegetarian tacos are nothing new — Wes Avila at Guerrilla Tacos made his name in part on his much-loved sweet potato taco.

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But at Tehuanita 2.0, these traditions are subtly amplified: Think crispy chicharrones made with seitan instead of pork skin, squash blossom quesadillas prepared with rich, melty coconut cheese and a 30-ingredient mole served over lightly fried cauliflower, inspired by Chang’s time living and cooking in Tijuana and Guadalajara.

Squash blossom quesadilla from Tehuanita 2.0
Richard Chang prepares a squash blossom quesadilla from his plant-based food truck, Tehuanita 2.0 in Echo Park. The vegan quesadilla is made with coconut cheese.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Fried cauliflower served with mole
A 30-ingredient mole is served over a lightly fried cauliflower at Tehuanita 2.0.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

There is also a very good, indulgently messy Korean burger with kimchi slaw and bulgogi marinade aioli, a tribute to the chef’s Korean Angeleno heritage.

Perhaps the biggest difference between this cart and any other (besides, of course, the lack of meat) is Tehuanita’s approach to sampling. Customers are encouraged to try little bites of the dishes before ordering, said Janelle Hu Chang, Richard Chang’s partner and coproprietor.

“We sample as a way of breaking down walls and preconceived notions,” she said. “Twenty years ago, people thought vegan food was all salads or cardboard or sawdust. And now, this food is delicious first, but yes, also vegan.”

Hu Chang estimates around 30% of her clientele is “flexitarian” — meaning they eat a bit of everything — but that for loyal vegans, a place like theirs provokes a deep reaction.

“There was one man,” Janelle recounts. “He had been vegan for seven years, but he grew up eating chile rellenos. For seven years, he hadn’t tasted a real chile relleno, and when he had ours, he just … he doubled over, he lost it. He told us, ‘This just changed my life.’”

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Vegan chile relleno form Tehuanita 2.0
A beer-battered chile relleno from Tehuanita 2.0 is stuffed with vegan mozzarella and topped with mole, salsa verde and salsa roja.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Tehuanita 2.0 is emblematic of the wider moment for vegan food underway across Los Angeles: It’s not “loud” vegan, it’s just good vegan, attracting a diverse audience of eaters and accomplished chefs.

Nobody is beating their chest or passing out literature, and there is no huge glowing sign declaring dietary purity. Food from Tehuanita 2.0 is much simpler than that, in the very best way, complex as the journey might be. We’re at the lonchera; we’re eating tacos.


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