For more than 40 years, I’ve been going back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico. When I was 16, I visited a meatpacking plant in the state of Zacatecas. From then on, I vowed not to contribute to the slaughter of animals.
Back in 1971, the book “Diet for a Small Planet” touted complementing amino acids to boost the protein content of plant-based foods. I was pleased to learn that the traditional foods of Mexico, and many other cultures, routinely combine rice, beans, and corn or dairy to aid the amino acid balance.
Most Mexican traditional foods are packed with protein, and today we know it’s not necessary to complement those amino acids. When I lived in Mexico I ate a lot of plant-based Mexican food: beans, mole, nopales, flor de calabaza, masa and salsa. My favorite breakfast pick-me-up, as a college student in Mexico City, was a licuado de mamey, with cinnamon. Today, cinnamon is one of those wonderful spices that I tell my clients to consume.
Of course with the modernization and Americanization of Mexican foods, protein and nutrients are often lost. So it’s not surprising that Mexico is now one of the countries with the highest rates of obesity and diabetes-related deaths in the world.
In 2014, junk food expenditures in Mexico were 30 percent of the household budget. Much of that money was spent at corner tiendas de abarrotes which is where most of the Pepsi and Coca Cola profits come from, too. According to Global Research, the soft drink industries have taken over the corner stores. Approximately 90 percent of their sales, in the last ten years, are from tiendas de abarrotes. That doesn’t mean Mexicans are just spending money on soda. Remember, the big manufacturers of empty caloric drinks are also suppliers of other junk foods, including sweet and salty packaged snacks.
It’s hard to butt heads against big bucks, but the Mexican government has public information campaigns aimed to redirect people’s palates back to where they once were. The new Plato Buen Comer, is pretty much a plant-based Mexican food dish. People are encouraged to eat primarily fruit and vegetables, combine grains with legumes, and limit animal products to only 10-15 percent of the diet.
This summer, I spent time in a very remote part of Baja, far from any major grocery store or mercado. Yet, I was still able to order hand-made vegan sopes made with cabbage, or gorditas made with nopalitos. At one restaurant, the chef made me tacos with rajas and mango, a beautiful and tasty combination. During the hot sunny days, nothing was better than a green drink made out of nopales, alfalfa, oranges, celery, and parsley.
Vegetarians, vegans, or people following a kosher diet, in Mexico, should be sure to be on the lookout for invisible animal products like lard, Maggi, or Knorr. For those that are concerned about cross-contamination, juice bars and vegetarian restaurants are not as uncommon as they were when I first went on my veggie kick, four decades ago.
Take Monterrey, the third-largest city in Mexico with four million residents. There are now about 15 plant-based Mexican food options. Following is a rundown, of places I recently visited, for karma-free food a lo Regio. Check out their Facebook pages, or call, before you go.
Smack dab in the middle of the historic district, on Galeana 1018, is Nutrisano. This is one of the few places that serve coffee with soy, I’m told. It’s open for breakfast, primarily serving egg dishes. I special requested vegan migas. At lunchtime, they have a full buffet. Nutrisano prepares fajitas, picadillo or milanesa using soy or gluten. Kids can choose from vegetarian nuggets, pizza, or burgers.
The Barrio Antiguo is one of my favorite areas in Monterrey, just east of the MacroPlaza. Abasolo Street is veggie heaven. Trece Lunas is a very hippy style, comfy espacio multicultural. They boast a daily vegan special and are planning a wider variety of vegan offerings.
Across the street, there is a doorway with a barbershop on the left, and a cafe on the right. The unmarked Los Falafel at Abasolo 853 has enclosed and open-air sitting areas. The menu is very limited, but it’s all vegan. Falafel in pita. Falafel in a flour tortilla. Falafel burger. Falafel with hummus. All, modestly priced, open from 1-10 p.m.
Hare Krishna, is one of the many restaurants, around the world, run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Just a few blocks west of the MARCO museum, on Abasolo #916, it’s open for lunch and dinner, Tuesdays through Sundays, and has indoor and outdoor eating areas. Hare Krishna is 100 percent vegetarian and egg-free. Some of the dishes are made with butter or milk, but there’s a good enough selection for even the pickiest of eaters, like me. There were no soy or gluten-based dishes when I visited, which I see as a plus. I’m not a fan of green beans, but I ate every one that was prepared with a rich peanut sauce. I don’t eat or drink anything sweetened, so the server offered me a freshly-made lemonade, without sugar.
Around the corner, on Diego de Montemayor 1120, is a vegetarian cafe call Teshanta. It’s a comfortable tea and coffee house with several Mediterranean and Mexican favorites made with soy or other meat-free ingredients. The tabouli, made with red cabbage, was better than most I’ve had, and the falafel balls were served with an avocado dressing. Teshanta is open Tuesdays through Sundays until 10 or 11 p.m. and also has an outdoor patio.
On that same block is Spiral Radiante. Anga is a graphic designer who relishes the foods, cultures, and spirituality of her native Mexico, and India. She’s been a vegan for more than a decade and is intent on eating pure, organic kosher-grade foods. She’s also a great cook, so opened Monterrey’s only vegan sattvic restaurant, serving daily specials or menu items Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. She’s using her tiny space to have events, does henna tattoos, and sells herbal analgesic pomades, spiritual books, and Indian textiles. Of course, her food is the core business. Her kitchen is a fusion of India and “Meshico.” For a very low price, she’ll serve you a good-sized salad peppered with kale, carrots, and more, a soup, main meal, drink, and dessert.
Just north of the Barrio Antiguo is the Santa Lucia river walk. Another Krishna-run restaurant is in this neighborhood, immediately behind the MUNE museum complex, on Jose Ignacio Ramon 820. Govinda serves a buffet from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Eat as much as you like for only 79 pesos, or 120 for two on Wednesdays. The offerings switch frequently, but there are always salads, a dal-like soup, rice, pasta, and samosas. My favorite was what looked like falafel patties, made from cabbage. I ate jicama slices for dessert, though there’s plenty with more sugar content.
A bit farther north of the Santa Lucia area, on Rafael Platon Sanchez 226, is an incognito vegan heaven. Noveno Elefante is a comfortable place with three tiny sitting rooms, and bench-like tables and chairs. Alberto Cepeda opened the restaurant after nine years of dreaming about it. He didn’t want a commercial feel, but a homey look, which is one reason why there’s no sign in the door or on the front of the building. He chose the elephant to represent his business because “It’s the largest animal on earth, is very peaceful, and has a lot of contact with the herd.” When they die, he explains, they gather together for a ritualistic goodbye. Alberto was also intent on creating an homage to his beloved traditional cuisine, without using any animal products. “The best way to respect them (animals) is by not eating them,” he says. He acknowledges that most of his customers eat meat, but feels that any reduction in slaughter is helpful. Once they try his dishes, they come back, refer others, and realize there are alternatives to good healthy, and filling meals. I had the best vegan enmoladas, ever. Alberto’s sister is a server, and mom and dad are in the kitchen, working to serve guests from noon to 10 p.m. Plus, his mother opened a vegan bakery, Atanor, around the corner.
Head north a few more blocks, and west to Trigo Limpio at 339 N. Zaragoza. From the outside, this looks like any other large, clean, bakery. But it’s all vegetarian and they sell an assortment of health food products, too. Upstairs, is a large cafeteria. Fill a plate for 89 pesos, or pay 118 for all you can eat. There’s a salad bar, dessert, and plenty of Mexican-style entrees, many of which are made with seitan or soy. Trigo Limpio has several styles of tamales, and hot foods, however, much of what they serve is vegetarian versus vegan, and gluten-free folks will need to be careful. Nonetheless, it’s a large, clean place, with loads of offerings.
Finally, if you can’t find what you’re looking for, maybe the vendor will find you. Pachamama is one of many food trucks that are starting to park at different locations throughout Monterrey. Pachamama is all vegan, offering ceviche tostadas made with mango and corn, smoked portabella burgers, taquitos or gyros.