Los Angeles Neighborhood Has a Vegan Latino ‘Epiphany’

vegan highland park

The local vegan scene is booming in Los Angeles’s Highland Park neighborhood. Local news source Los Angeles Magazine reports that food entrepreneurs have created a space centered around serving vegan Latino cuisine inspired by their heritage, sparking a grassroots movement that makes plant-based food more accessible.

“As vegans, we would drive by and see the cena,” said Carmen Santillan, co-founder of the vegan Mexican pop-up, Cena  Vegan, speaking of the omnivore taco stands found throughout L.A. at night. “I thought, ‘That’s something we’re never going to have, to stand on the corner and have a taco.’ We’re happy being vegan, but it was something I missed.”

Launched in 2015 by Santillan, her husband Mike Simms, and friend Gary Huerta, Cena Vegan has since earned a loyal customer following. The pop-up serves meat-free versions of popular dishes like seitan al pastor, pollo asado, and barbacoa, all made with authentic Mexican spices and cooking techniques in order to recreate flavors and textures that resonate with the local foodie community.

“A lot of times what [vegan] companies do is they add cumin, and they call it Mexican food,” Huerta explained. “But there’s a lot of layering that goes into the food we grew up with. Having those traditional flavors again, it’s like an epiphany.”

Cena Vegan’s success has allowed for its founders to enter the retail market. Last May, Santillan, Simms, and Huerta launched four of the pop-up’s signature vegan meats in two Los Angeles plant-based grocery stores. It is now available in Organix, Lassens, and the Follow Your Heart Cafe.

Cena Vegan is not alone in serving food inspired by culinary tradition. Carol Paniagua, co-founder of the Guatemalan vegan pop-up Vegatinos serves meat-free tortas stuffed with beans, pozole, carne asada, birria, and tamales. Chef Evaniza Holz of Señoreata specializes in cooking vegan versions of popular Cuban dishes like meat pies, “arroz sin pollo,” ropa vieja, and lechon asado. Holz favors using jackfruit to recreate the texture of pork in many of her dishes.

Highland Park’s booming vegan Latino scene has also prompted some local vendors to adjust their menu in order to appeal to the more plant-forward crowd. David and Delmy Ramirez, owners of a Salvadorean pupusa cart, say they launched a vegan menu because their traditional meat-heavy options weren’t selling well.

While David notes that Highland Park’s pop-up attracts a large vegan crowd, the local plant-based Latino food scene appeals to all palates. Last May, Taqueria La Veganza, a vegan Mexican pop-up that frequents the streets of Highland Park, claimed the title of Best Los Angeles Taco at the ninth annual Taco Madness contest. Fans voted for the taqueria’s vegan barria tacos among 32 non-vegan competitors.

“I wanted to find a good vegan taco de carnitas and I couldn’t find an affordable one. They were only at affluent vegan hipster spots,” chef Raul Medina, founder off Taqueria La Veganza, told NPR (National Public Radio) last July.

Image Credit: leganitud | Instagram

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