Inside a narrow hallway that leads to the 4th Street Market food hall, a crowd forms around La Vegana Mexicana’s colorful counter. People are there to try the pambazo, a traditional sandwich from Mexico City. But instead of the usual filling of pork chorizo y papas, La Vegana Mexicana’s version uses a garbanzo-bean-based substitute.
“It’s excellent,” Dianna Garcia, 58, says. “It has so much flavor. I can’t believe it. The texture is kind of meaty. You think vegan food is just going to be mushy, but it’s not.”
La Vegana Mexicana is a former pop-up that opened its first brick-and-mortar location at 4th Street Market eight months ago. It made its first appearance on Oct. 12 at the tasting event Savor Santa Ana.
It is the only vegan Mexican restaurant in Orange County. Vegan food, made without any animal products, is slowly growing in Downtown Santa Ana. About half of the restaurants and bars participating in the annual Savor Santa Ana event offer vegan options on their regular menu. Only two are strictly vegan.
La Vegana Mexicana takes veganism one step further by making dishes that are also soy and gluten-free. Chef and owner Loreta Ruiz began her journey with vegan food in 2015, when her then-19-year-old daughter, Loreta Sierra, was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease. After learning that most animal products were making her sick, Sierra struggled to find good vegan food.
“I remember I came home one day and I was so frustrated. I told my mom, ‘Mom, there’s no vegan Mexican food.’ I grew up at home with really elaborate dishes that are from all these different [Mexican] states,” she says. “I just didn’t feel seen.”
Sierra is not alone. Health issues have inspired other Santa Ana natives to bring vegan food to the masses, while remaining loyal to their Mexican culture.
Raul Medina, who owns mock-meat pop-up Taqueria La Venganza, began cooking vegan tacos after losing his father to diabetes. Similarly, David Aguilar started selling vegan food in the parking lot of his family’s Santa Ana restaurant Taqueria El Zamorano as a way to try and convince his diabetic dad to eat healthier.
“Personally I love Mexican food but there’s no Mexican vegan food in OC,” Aguilar told el Don last year. “I would have to go to L.A. and that’s far. The demand [for vegan food] is huge here in OC but there aren’t enough vendors.”
Among Mexican Americans, 79.5% of women and 82.3% of men are overweight or obese, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. The same study also found that Hispanics are almost twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with diabetes.
“There’s people like me and there’s people that are worse. They exist and want to be seen too. For us, culturally, everything revolves around food. They want to be able to eat what they would have on any given day before they got sick. We are meeting a demand for a lot of people,” said Sierra.
“There’s people like me and there’s people that are worse,” Sierra says. “They exist and want to be seen too. For us, culturally, everything revolves around food. We are meeting a demand for a lot of people.”