In the carne asada capital of Mexico, vegan options are on the rise
It’s a typical Sonoran barbecue, or carne asada. In the video, a young woman sits downcast at a picnic table while others chow down on tacos.
Suddenly, she perks up, grabs a container of soy-based carne asada and joins her family and friends in the festivities.
“How to be vegan in Sonora without missing a single carne asada:” That’s the concept behind Veggy Tacos HMO — a business Ligia Rojas started with her mom, Olga Hernández, in 2017, selling vegan alternatives of Sonoran favorites.
“Like the good Sonorans that we are, who love the region and are proud of our roots and all that, we said, ‘OK, we will keep being Sonoran, but we’ll also be vegan, vegetarian,” Rojas said.
Like many people who switch to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, she said, they still want to enjoy traditional dishes. And that’s what they try to provide with a wide variety of soy and seitan-based alternatives.
‘Here is your barbacoa, so you can go to breakfast with you friends. You can eat barbacoa with them, but yours will be vegan. You want to go to a carne asada? Bring this, here is your carne asada, you can eat it, too,” she said. “Or pastor or machaca. Or you want to make burritos paseados, that too!
“Anything Sonoran, regional, the things we like, our roots, there’s a vegan version,” she said.
Choosing to forgo meat — for health or environmental reasons, for animal welfare or just because you want to cut back or try new things — shouldn’t mean missing out, she said.
“That’s our goal: when you make that change, you won’t suffer."
She sells the veganized versions by the liter, and twice a week at the Veggy Tacos taqueria in her family’s carport. The recipes are the same ones her mom made for her growing up — back when it was a lot harder to find vegetarian options in Hermosillo.
“Hermosillo is the beef capital, as they say, right,” Rojas said.
The beef capital of Mexico. The most carnivorous state. There is no denying that Sonora is known for its carne.
Why wouldn’t it? It is the pride of Sonora.
Beef arrived here with Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century, and cattle ranching is now nearly ubiquitous in rural parts of the state.
But like others around the world, a growing number of Sonorans are changing their diets — exchanging meat-heavy dishes for more plant-based fare. That’s opened up a world of choices in a city where, not long ago, those avoiding meat might have been relegated to beans and quesadillas at most gatherings and restaurants.
Increasing demand, increasing choices
“I think the demand has gone up,” said event organizer Carolina López. “Now we have a lot more vegan options to choose from.”
Tofu and vegan cheese are on the shelves at grocery stores; there are a couple dozen vegan restaurants including coffee shops, hotdog stands, taquerias and burger joints; even places typically lacking veggie options — like seafood restaurants — are putting vegan dishes on the menu.
“You don’t need a single animal to get great flavor,” Chef Ivan Tapia said, dishing out portions of vegan mole, chilorio and tinga made from mushrooms at the festival.
He went vegan several years ago after spending time with Sonora’s Indigenous communities, which he said gave him a new perspective on animals’ lives.
“And one day I was eating a carne asada taco, and I started to cry. I didn’t know why,” he said. “I had to spit it out.”
Suddenly, he found he could no longer consume animals and hasn’t had a single animal product since.
Now, he’s working to show others that a vegan diet is not only possible, but it can be healthy and delicious.
“But it’s like fighting a giant,” he said.
In a place like Hermosillo, there are a lot of misconceptions about veganism and plant-based eating, he said. Family and friends worry about your health, and social situations can be tough.
“It's hard socially, and in your relationships,” said Marco Beltrán, who was at the festival sampling tacos and donuts with his brother and father — all vegans. “But it brings peace.”
Despite the challenges, he said choosing a vegan lifestyle is worth it. Eating as a vegan can be simple and easy, he said. And the food is great.
“Excellent,” he rated Tapia’s tacos with a chuckle. “I could eat it however you served it to me.”
Delicious, fun food is the whole concept behind Beatriz Carvajal’s vegan fast food restaurant Vegana del Norte.
“Fun food, exactly,” she said. “It’s to make your mouth water. We don’t have any health foods here.”
She said a plant-based diet can be healthy. But it doesn’t have to be.
Vegana del Norte started out of Carvajal’s home shortly after she became vegan about eight years ago for ethical reasons.
Now, she’s sitting under a red and yellow sign outside her newly opened restaurant.
In the kitchen, onion rings and French fries sizzle in the fryer, and soy adobada and a lentil-based veggie patty heat up on the grill.
The restaurant’s fried tofu-chicken sandwich, BBQ veggie burger and birria tacos are among the most popular items on the menu, Carvajal said.
And her customers include vegans and nonvegans alike.
“Most of them aren’t vegan,” she said with a laugh. “There aren’t enough of us for all the business I get.”
When she stopped eating animal products as part of her transition to a vegan lifestyle, she said it was hard to find things to eat and even harder for people to understand and accept your decision. But that’s shifted.
Lately, she’s seen whole offices order veggie burgers for a colleague’s birthday or friends plan a plant-based posada “in solidarity” with the vegans in their life.
“Really, food is the easiest thing” about going vegan, she said.
In fact, eliminating meat was part of what pushed her into the kitchen to try new things.
That’s also true for the duo behind Esquina Vegana.
Food is culture
“I’m a gluten smuggler,” Elizabeth Núñez said. “In other words, I’m a baker.”
She learned to cook as a teenager when she gave up meat, she said, and has always looked for ways to make traditional dishes without animal products.
For two years, she owned a vegan bakery that had plant-based versions of traditional Mexican breads and sweets, like conchas.
Then, a few months ago, she teamed up with long-time vegan cook Monica Pacheco to open a new restaurant serving traditional favorites with a vegan twist.
“It’s something Hermosillo was missing,” Núñez said: tasty, late-night vegan munchies.
Pacheco is part of an earlier wave of plant-based chefs in Hermosillo. Her previous restaurant, Madre Tierra, was a beloved vegetarian option for a decade and during a time when there were just a handful of spots serving meat-free food.
But that’s changed.
“Veggy Tacos comes to mind,” she said of Rojas’ restaurant. “I tell you when I tasted that for the first time, it was emotional, like going back to the food I had as a child.”
She said it’s an exciting time for Hermosillo’s culinary world, and she’s excited to team up with Núñez, bringing her years of experience and Núñez’s new ideas and energy, to add their piece to the puzzle.
And Núñez believes this surge of vegan food in Hermosillo is part of a permanent shift.
“It’s a bit transgressive,” she said.
Food is culture, she said. And their food bucks the idea that meat is essential to Sonoran identity.
“I think that’s changing,” she said. “And there’s no going back.”