The land of Quetzalcoatl and Tlaloc has always made my heart sing. Its flavors have made my belly sing.
I became a vegetarian 40 years ago when I was living in Mexico. So, my idea of Mexican food is different from that of others. I’ve always treasured what I find unique about Mexico from atole to mole.
Over the years, I’ve gotten stricter with my diet. Vegan. Gluten-free. Sugar-free. Stateside, about the only thing I’ll order in a Mexican restaurant, is guacamole with corn tortillas. But in Mexico, there are always great choices.
While Mexico City isn’t like Austin, Texas, or Southern California where vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free options are frequently noted on the menu, I’ve found it usually easy to request no meat, dairy, sugar, or wheat. Traditional Mexican restaurants will often have nopales, flor de calabaza, huitlacoche or champinones as part of their offerings, and of course, rice, beans, and tortillas are good protein sources for those that eat them. However, if you’re a strict vegetarian, be sure to ask if the beans are made with lard, if the rice is made with chicken stock or Maggi or Knorr, and stress no cheese on anything.
I love street food, in part, because I can see what I’m going to eat, and how it’s being prepared. During a recent trip to Mexico City, juicing kiosks were pretty much everywhere. Restricting my sugars, I found green drink offerings at every stand. The most common mix was celery, parsley, nopales and grapefruit. One added chia. Another, sprouts. All are made to order, so you can control exactly what goes in, and how much of each ingredient.
The street-side braseros have always been a favorite for me. I like to see what my food looks like before it’s hidden by the tortilla or masa. One morning, I found a very clean stand with two women patting tlacoyos and quesadillas into shape. When I inquired about animal-free choices, they named too many for me to remember. They prepared me a tlacoyo filled with pureed fava beans and topped with nopales. As that was being cooked, they made me a quesadilla filled with red peppers and spinach. It may have been my favorite meal during this trip, and only cost 26 pesos (about $1.50).
If street food isn’t your cup of tea, special order wherever you go. Just be sure you have a good command of the language or a translator. Villa Maria, for example, is a large established Mexican restaurant with live mariachi bands playing and plenty of tequila, mezcal and margaritas. The menu has a good assortment of salads that are vegetarian and gluten-free. Among the botanas are several vegetarian options.
Of course, there are plenty of Asian bistros where meatless meals are easy to find. Plus, there are falafel fast food places sprouting up throughout the city.
El Rey del Falafel is both vegan and kosher/parve. Since kosher rules don’t allow the mixing of meat and dairy, parve means neither milk nor meat-based foods. Enlacejudio.com jokes that restaurants secretly put lard in everything. That’s not all that far from the truth. I’ve seen plenty of five-gallon lard buckets in restaurant kitchens. The website also suggests if you’re kosher, you’d better ask what the base is for every soup. Countless vegetable or bean soups are made with chicken or beef broth, or have cream, milk, or cheese mixed in.
Dietary restrictions and special diets often have to do with more than the nutritional makeup of your meal. It can be a moral, political or religious affirmation, as well. For some people, whether they are kosher, or vegetarian/vegan, they want to avoid cross-contamination and prefer separate grills and utensils for meat and dairy. That’s just one reason why many vegans prefer to frequent vegan establishments so that you know that no pepperoni or cheese crumbs will fall into your salad and that the cutting board and knife have not been slicing brisket or chorizo.
Olga Lisbona is the owner of La Maison Organique in the trendy Condesa neighborhood. She became a vegan after she learned about the treatment of dairy animals and chickens, and the negative impact on our health. Her personal commitment to a chemical- and pesticide-free plant-based diet led her to open La Maison as a vegan restaurant and boutique.
“I think that Mexico is still a difficult place for vegans,” she said. “Most restaurants have vegetarian options,” she acknowledges. For vegans, choices are more limited, and she feels vegan restaurants are the best bet. “Besides our concern for good flavor, we add the best ingredients to our juices, smoothies, and dishes, such as superfoods that have a positive impact on maintaining health and staving off illnesses for those with a vegan diet.”
No more pbj sandwiches at every meal. La Maison offers matcha cupcakes, goji berry pancakes, or edamame burgers. And, you can buy quinoa bars, sweet potato chips fried in coconut oil, hemp seeds, and chai superfood protein powder to go.
La Maison’s clientele is a mix of strict vegans and on the other side of the scale, those that may be a bit uncomfortable pouring coconut or almond milk in their coffee. “I think there’s still a lot more to do in the area of education and consciousness. It can be hard for people to change their habits.”
Forever Vegano is another vegan spot, on the other side of Insurgentes, in Colonia Roma. Forever serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Their caffeine-free chai is infused with cardamom and many other spices. They have several soups, salads and desserts and make their own plant-based cheeses and faux meats. The menu has standard Mexican and American fare like a Reuben sandwich or mac and cheese. Some of the dishes are flavored with a bit of an Indian or Asian flair, as seen in their Baja Cali-flower tacos or Quinoameshi bowl made with soy sauce, peanuts, and ginger.
For listings of vegetarian restaurants in Mexico City, consult Happy Cow, http://mexicovegetariano.com/DFvegetariano#rest_veg, http://www.haztevegetariano.com/restaurantes/mexico/mexico_df or veganoseneldf.com.
Find two dozen kosher options, including a Sanborn’s, here.