Where’s the Leaf?
A Meat Eater’s Guide to Local Vegan Tacos
by Candolin Cook
photos by Clarke Condé
I’ve never met a taco I didn’t like. An Austin-inspired breakfast taco with scrambled eggs and barbecued pulled pork? Sign me up. Korean bulgogi beef and kimchi? I’ll take two. Classic pork carnitas? Pass the limes. But it wasn’t until recently that I began to venture into, and thoroughly enjoy, the eclectic world of vegan tacos. I wish I could claim that this newfound love for plant-based eating was prompted by some ethical or health-based revelation. In reality, it stems from the most basic of impulses: to consume all things delicious.
It wasn’t too long ago that if you saw “vegan taco” listed on a menu, it more than likely consisted of beans. Then, as vegan Mexican dishes became more mainstream in the United States, and as a growing chorus of eaters demanded more innovative takes on plant-based proteins, this category of taco expanded to mean anything from fried avocado to tofu chorizo to Impossible-brand ground “beef.” Now, these meatless morsels are popping up in taquerias all across the nation, including here in the heartland of carne adovada.
One local vegan chef making a name for himself (or, at least, an alliterative nickname) is Rome Arrey, purveyor of the Vegan Vato food truck. Arrey is part of a New Mexican, meat-eating family, and it’s important to him that he’s able to create dishes that they and all Burqueños enjoy. “By manipulating the texture and taste of [plant-based proteins and vegetables], I can make that same comfort food we’re used to,” he asserts. But, for chefs like Arrey, it’s not just about replication. In an absence of meat and dairy, they take great care in building flavor and letting plant-based ingredients shine. “We’ve come a long way,” Arrey says, referring both to strides in vegan cooking and to the proliferation of the cuisine within our local restaurant scene. “Even in the last year [in Albuquerque], so many more places have started serving amazing vegan food,” he points out, citing establishments like Vegos and Holmes Pizza. “I think the pandemic has made people [both] more health conscious and open to trying new things. . . . Life is short.”
Life is indeed too short to miss out on good tacos. Here are just a few of the ones around town that have me skipping the meat but not the flavor.
Food Truck Taco
Vegan Vato: Seitan Asada
For locations, see their
Vegan Vato’s “NewMexiCali”-style tacos come with a choice of vegan protein and all the toppings I know and love: cilantro, onions, tomatoes, salsa, guacamole, and shredded cheese (a vegan cheddar that actually tastes like cheese!). But, for me, what sets these tasty street tacos apart is the seitan “carne” asada. Chef Rome creates the seitan’s steaky texture through a washed-flour method, meticulously rewashing and kneading wheat gluten until it becomes the right consistency. The elastic dough is then marinated in his family’s traditional carne asada recipe spices. Once grilled on his flat top, the seitan makes for a flavorful filling that even carnivores can enjoy. Case in point: on a recent evening at Sidetrack Brewing, I witnessed a friend maw down an entire plate of Vegan Vato’s A La Loaded Fries topped with the seitan asada and covered in cashew-based queso, without even realizing the dish was vegan.
Taco al Pastor
Los Conejos: Vegan al Pastor
1504 Central SE, Albuquerque, @losconejosabq
Los Conejos is the conjoined and colorful sister concept of
prohibition-themed bar The Copper Lounge. Since opening last year, this agave bar has become my favorite spot to grab a mezcal margarita (it’s not technically on the menu, but they’ll make it for you), which I love pairing with a trio of their Vegan al Pastor tacos made with jackfruit. For some reason, I’d always been averse to the idea of jackfruit and imagined its flesh as soggy and sugary (it is fruit, after all). Thankfully, Los Conejos proved me wrong. Their pulled and marinated jackfruit is griddled to crispy perfection and tastes remarkably pork-like. Piled high on tender corn tortillas and topped with pineapple salsa, the flavors are well balanced and the consistency is wonderfully juicy but not greasy. Without all the fat of a typical pork taco, I feel like I can eat twice as many, which is great since I always want a second margarita here anyway.
El Cotorro: Camote Guisado
111 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque, @elcotorroabq
While I’ve been thoroughly impressed by the way chefs have managed to mimic the flavors and textures of meat with plant-based proteins, I understand that for some vegans and vegetarians these meat “substitutes” can be unappetizing, as they remind them too much of the real thing. Flora is kept closer to form at El Cotorro, with their spicy camote guisado tacos. In these little delicacies, a guisado of sautéed swiss chard, kale, alliums, and purslane is deglazed with salsa verde, then spooned into handmade corn tortillas and topped with fried sweet potato and microgreens. An honorable mention also goes to their vegetarian fried nopales tacos for making the panko-crusted cactus meat so delightfully crunchy. (These come with a four-cheese blend but can be prepared sans dairy.)
Sister Bar: Buffalo Cauliflower
407 Central NW, Albuquerque, @sisterbar
Cauliflower has really become the superstar of the vegetable world in the last decade. Versatile and hearty, this shapeshifting crucifer can morph into anything from rice to steak to pizza crust. At Sister Bar in the heart of downtown Albuquerque, cauliflower transforms into a dish synonymous with bar food: buffalo chicken. The florets are fried, tossed in hot sauce, topped with pickled red onions, and drizzled with vegan ranch dressing. The soft corn tortillas can only hold this sauce bomb for so long, so they are best inhaled with all the gusto of someone who’s spent the last several hours on Sister’s dance floor during ’80s night.
Paloma: Cauliflower Taco
401 S Guadalupe, Santa Fe, @palomarestaurant
A high-end version of the cauliflower taco can be found in Santa Fe at Paloma. Chef Nathan Mayes’s Spanish-inspired dish consists of crispy cauliflower, golden raisins, Marcona almond salsa, Manzanilla olives, and a warm handmade corn tortilla. Briny, spicy, sweet, and salty, of all the restaurant’s stellar taco offerings, this one is the true star. It’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a tortilla. But mostly, it’s a perfect example of the kind of care and cookery going on in the vegan taco scene right now. Taco lovers, rejoice!
Candolin Cook is a historian, writer, editor, and former co-editor of edible New Mexico. She recently received her doctorate in history from the University of New Mexico and is working on her first book.