Every Wednesday evening, a line forms outside of The Bite in Kansas City’s River Market neighborhood as chef-owner Carlos R. Mortera clears the regular fare from his kitchen. He’s then joined by his friend Drew Clark, and their weekly pop up, Taqueria Vegana, comes to life. Those people standing out in the cold are waiting for something that’s still rare in this barbecue-crazed city: a fully vegan menu featuring from-scratch dishes. Equally inspired by Latin and Asian cuisines as well as fast food, the pop up also attracts attention for its substantial portions and reasonable prices. The menu is limited to six to eight dishes – all priced between $5 and $12 – including elote, mushroom pozole, “chorizo” nachos and a take on a beef Crunchwrap. Clark, a vegan himself, assures diners that they’ll leave satisfied: These vegan offerings are not of the sad side salad and boring mixed vegetable plate generation. Instead, Taqueria Vegana proves that good food is good food, whether it has meat or not.
What influenced Taqueria Vegana’s entirely vegan menu? It’s the same food I’ve been cooking for myself, my wife and my friends for a long time. I grew up vegetarian and recently switched to veganism. Cooking has always been a hobby of mine but also a kind of necessity. [Taqueria Vegana] started as Mexican-Latin cuisine because there’s a lot about it that works well with vegan/vegetarian dishes. It’s bright and flavorful, and rice and beans are already a big part of it so you’re not necessarily always substituting for meat. A lot of the ingredients, including proteins and meat substitutes, that we use are from Asian cuisine, and we use a lot of Asian techniques. I have been experimenting with things like banana blossoms and dried tofu skins and making a Vietnamese vegetarian ham substitute called cha lua chay. [But] we also have a passion for good junk food! That’s what can be the hardest to find as a vegan, so a lot of fast food influences come into our food as well.
What sets Taqueria Vegana’s offerings apart? The [city’s] vegetarian and vegan options have grown exponentially in the last year or two, but at most mainstream restaurants, you’re stuck with a veggie burger or a quinoa bowl. Those are great, but I don’t think it’s what a lot of people who are going vegan, or are dabbling in it, are craving. You want food that’s good and satisfying, and that’s what we do.
Have you been surprised by the customers you’re attracting? I’ve been surprised and it’s changing a lot – it’s a much larger crowd than I imagined. In the beginning, I saw a lot of younger faces, a lot of social media influencer-type people, and then it’s been kind of random. At least 50 percent [of customers] are people that aren’t necessarily vegan but are curious: They’re trying it out or trying to eat plant-based meals a few times per week. I think we offer those people comfort foods that they want. There’s definitely a demand.
Taqueria Vegana, 23 E. 3rd St., Kansas City, Missouri, facebook.com/taqueriaveganakc