By Frank Sabatini Jr. | Restaurant Review
The problem with food trucks is that you can grow wildly attached to one, and in a blink of an eye, it rolls into greener pastures clear across town — only to never return to your neighborhood again because of weak profits or complicated permit issues.
Or it completely vanishes off the face of the earth.
Such was the case with Dharma Dogs, one of my favorite mobile kitchens that served up some mean hot dogs and garlic fries on University Avenue in Hillcrest for several months. After disappearing for a while, it re-emerged briefly in South Park, in the Target Express parking lot where I recently discovered La Taqueria Vegiee.
Curiosity led me to hit the brakes and suddenly swerve into the lot when I spotted two food trucks operating within feet of each other. The Nine Seas Seafood truck had a longer line, so I sauntered over to La Taqueria where a friendly employee named Armando eagerly discussed various specs of the company’s all-vegan Mexican menu.
Despite arriving with a full lunch in my belly, I couldn’t resist ordering the Ensenada taco, a tasty specimen containing battered strips of portobello mushrooms topped with crisp, purple cabbage and chipotle-kissed vegan mayo.
Slightly bigger than a trendy street taco, I washed it down with a cold lemon-mint agua fresca that seemed tailor-made for sitting under the midday sun at a picnic table on an asphalt parking lot. (The flavor of the infused waters change daily.)
I returned two days later to gobble down a wider sampling of food — and to meet owner Hector Lopez. He had previously been at a vegan food event in Tijuana, where he owns three vegan enterprises: a La Taqueria Vegiee stand, plus Inspiracion 9 and Quinto restaurants.
His San Diego truck not only operates in South Park from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Thursday through Monday, but also perches in front of Modern Times Beer in Loma Portal from noon to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Yet for my second visit to South Park on an early Monday afternoon, the truck was missing in action. Assuming it was running late, I returned a little later. And still nothing.
I learned the truck had deviated from its regular schedule to service the five-year anniversary of Modern Times Beer. So I hit the road and headed there.
Lopez is a friendly, down-to-earth guy with handsome Marlboro Man looks, not necessarily the sort of person I’d imagine being an advocate for veganism. He switched to a plant-based diet 25 years ago and raves about the benefits.
“When you eat vegan, neurons start waking up in the right side of your brain and you see things a lot differently,” Lopez said.
The entrepreneur has also lectured at global conferences centered on the ancient Sumerian Tablets, which date back 4,000 years and supposedly tell the story of “who we are and where we come from.”
I redirected my intrigue toward the food, starting with an order of birria soup served in a sizable Styrofoam cup and with a grilled yellow-corn tortilla on the side. In lieu of the goat meat or beef this soup is usually stuffed with, Lopez uses shredded oyster mushrooms to mimic such proteins. From a textural standpoint, they worked well in what was an exceptionally dark broth capturing the classic flavors of ancho chilies, cumin, vinegar, and green herbs.
A torta filled with faux carne asada is the item that will ultimately lure me back soon.
The vegan torta rolls, sourced from a Chula Vista bakery, are brushed with rosemary-infused olive oil right before they’re lightly grilled. The “meat” inside looks and tastes so much like crumbled beef that you’ll find yourself leaning in closely to double check. Add to the equation fresh cilantro, diced onions and a thin layer of guacamole tucked inside, and you’re looking at a potential rival to many nonvegan tortas out there.
With the support of his wife and a chef business partner, Lopez feels he has tackled the art of separating proteins from grains to make the mock meats. Liquid smoke, chilies, garlic and various spices are key to achieving the fairly robust flavors they offer.
For the adobada “pork” taco, a composite of barley, rye and wheat is flavored adeptly with achiote paste, thyme and marjoram. Here, the “meat” takes on an appealing reddish tint from the paste and performs naturally with a crowning of onions, cilantro and guacamole.
Currently in the works are mock shrimp and other types of fish to make seafood cocktails, which are scheduled to roll out for the truck’s one-year anniversary in late August.
In the meantime, Lopez assures that La Taqueria Vegiee has found a stable home in South Park while acknowledging the flexibility a kitchen with a big set of wheels has. Though given his entrepreneurial spirit and devotion to veganism, I’m willing to bet he’ll be around here or there for the long run.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.