The meaty, cheesy, deep-fried nature of many typical Mexican dishes might seem pretty standard, but Mexican food was traditionally all plant-based (according to Lauren Ornelas, founder of the national Food Empowerment Project who wrote the website on Vegan Mexican Food).
Many Mexican dishes like nopales and ensalada de frutas con chile (Mexican-style fruit salad) are naturally vegan. Meanwhile, the mostly meat-based meals can be reimagined with plant-based substitutes — as demonstrated by these 10 vegan Mexican dishes around the Valley.
Carne Asada Nachos
5555 North Seventh Street, #108
Nachos could be technically defined as tortilla chips with toppings, but at Verdura, nachos are proverbial mountains of crazy flavor that must be climbed slowly while bobbing your head to Bauhaus and watching cartoons projected on the wall. Known for its large portions anyway, Verdura gives its carne asada nachos extra magnitude with soft but crunchy seitan (aka “wheat meat,” aka gluten), chipotle black beans, guacamole, black olives, dollops of chunky pico de gallo, chimichurri bursting with grassy parsley flavor, and heaps of “cheezy queso.” There’s also a substantially spicy kick from jalapeños, so if you’re not a fan of heat, ask them to forgo the peppers.
Flautas de Papa
Earth Plant-Based Cuisine
1325 Grand Avenue
The menu at Earth Plant-Based Cuisine is modest in size but mighty in flavor. The spartan ambiance at this family-owned restaurant — exposed wooden beams and tables, metal chairs, minimal decorations — belies the fantastic food. Easily the most popular item on the menu (though Earth’s chorizo fries provide serious competition), the flautas de papa takes the idea of rolled tacos to new heights. The flautas are topped with lettuce and radish, drizzled with avocado salsa verde crème, and blanketed with snowy-looking house-made cotija cheese. A bite of the crunchy tortilla yields creamy potatoes, spinach, and aromatic Mexican herb epazote, which lends a pungent and strange citrus-mint zing to the whole thing. Served with a side of beans or made-from-scratch salsa for an extra “oh my god” moment.
Mulitas de al Pastor at AZ Tacos Veganos
AZ Tacos Veganos
Mulita de al Pastor
AZ Tacos Veganos
The mulita has been described as “a quesadilla on steroids” and a “double-decker quesadilla.” Whatever you want to call this traditional Mexican wrap, the vegan version of mulita de al pastor from pop-up concept AZ Tacos Veganos is most simply and aptly described as “awesome.” AZ Tacos Veganos’ variety of dishes includes birria and street tacos filled with imitations of beef and chicken, but it’s the concept’s smoky, savory faux pork that really makes the mutable menu shine, especially in the mulita de al pastor. Chunks of grilled, plant-based pork are deliciously seasoned and cooked to chewy perfection, then piled on a bed of vegan cheese between two crispy corn tortillas. It’s a crave-inducing entrée from AZ Tacos Veganos. Find them at Helton Brewing Company on Friday and Saturday nights, and at Fresh 2 Def Barber Shop in Goodyear on Sunday nights.
5757 North Central Avenue
Raul’s Cocina recently vacated its space in Glendale, but you can now find it at the Uptown Farmers’ Market in central Phoenix on Wednesdays and Saturdays. And if you get there early enough, you might be able to get a bowl of vegan pozole before it sells out. Chef Anna Salazar’s spin on the traditional Mexican hominy stew swaps jackfruit for pork and she makes red chile and green chile versions, sometimes also with squash. It’s deceptively savory for something containing zero meat or fat.
Quesadillas from Dilla Libre do travel well.
Gypsy Restaurant Group
Of the many menu items made with Beyond Meat these days, Dilla Libre makes one of the most masterful — the vegan California Dilla. The restaurant uses crumbles of Beyond Burger to create carne asada that would fool even the most committed carnivore. Stuffed with French fries (yes, inside the crisp, folded tortilla) and further packed beyond capacity with pico de gallo, black beans, guacamole, and gooey vegan cheese, the California Dilla packs a flavor punch that’s almost as exciting as eyeing the Lucha libre wrestlers flying off turnbuckles and top ropes all over Dilla Libre’s walls.
1701 East Guadalupe Road, Tempe
It’s impossible to predict what kinds of tacos and quesadillas might be on the rotating weekly menu at 24 Carrots, but you can count on them always being weird and wonderful. The tacos could be filled with anything: seitan sausage fried rice, green chili chickpea sausage, butternut squash, quinoa, tater tots … and the quesadillas can get a little crazy, too (soy chicken dumplings?). For example, the Cowgirl Chow quesadilla with soyrizo, three-bean chili, and roasted corn. Or the Samesa-ish quesadilla with potatoes, peas, masala, spinach, and vegan cheese. The weekly specials are typically posted on Tuesdays via Facebook, and it’s always worth a peek — if only to see what kind of culinary convention chef/owner Sasha Raj is bucking this week.
The Ceviche de mi Corazón by Pachamama.
Ceviche de mi Corazón
4115 North 19th Avenue
You know a place keeps it fresh when it takes its moniker from the Andean goddess of planting and harvesting. Pachamama definitely lives up to its namesake with a menu of 100 percent plant-based dishes bursting with bright flavors from husband-and-wife duo Kevin and Maria Lebron. The Ceviche de mi Corazón is especially zingy — a rich “seafood” mix of heart of palm, tomatoes, and celery punctuated with serrano peppers, gueritos chiles, and onions swimming in citrus and sprinkled with cilantro. It’s served with a side of chips (also good here) that helps offset the ceviche’s heat.
Vegan Chiles en Nogada
2814 North 16th Street
Barrio Café is nationally known for its Mexican dishes, especially its chiles en nogada. The vegan version subs fried sweet plantains for chicken in the poblano pepper, lending texture to the dish. Mountains of mushrooms bring earthy flavor, while the chile heat is balanced by nuts, dried fruits, and fresh apples and pears. Swimming in a savory cashew cream reduction, the chiles en nogada gets a further sweet tone from a side dish of piloncillo-glazed baby carrots. It’s all about balance at Barrio Café, which offers a similarly dual setting in its central Phoenix building — traditional Mexican décor and dishes next to contemporary murals by local artists, including the “PHOENIX” mural Joe Biden and Kamala Harris posed in front of during a presidential campaign trail stop.
The taquitos at GuacStar Kitchen & Cantina.
GuacStar Kitchen & Cantina
GuacStar Kitchen & Cantina
920 East University Drive, #204, Tempe
The vast menu of plant-based Mexican dishes at GuacStar Kitchen & Cantina is a fun one, offering everything from Sinaloa ceviche to Baja pescado tacos. Chef Clinton Lomayma seems to give special care to the taquitos, one of the more consistent dishes on the menu. Packed with achiote rice, Impossible meat, mozzarella, red onions, and white beans and covered in red enchilada sauce, the taquitos take a piquant tone from pickled jalapeños and Fresno chiles. Worth sharing, but you probably won’t want to.
Three of this southern California-based chain’s 13 locations are in greater Phoenix, and its low carb Guiltless Burrito has been the talk of the town (or at least vegan Facebook groups). Unlike some burritos that won’t fit into a human mouth in a single bite, this Tocaya Organica dish is manageable — not that anyone would complain if it was bigger. A gluten-free coconut and cassava flour tortilla provides the vessel for Spanish-style cauliflower rice, black beans, bell peppers, and jalapeño cabbage. Add mock chicken or beef for even more flavor, and dip it in a side of vegan chipotle crema for a smoky finish.
Editor’s note: This article was updated from its original version.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free… Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who’ve won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism’s existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our “I Support” membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.