One would think that a vegan-friendly pop-up on Highland Park’s York Boulevard would fit right in, given nearby vegan-minded businesses such as Plant Food for People and Donut Friend. But that wasn't the case.
"People have thrown things at us, called us damn gentrifiers,” says Mike Simms, who, along with his wife, Carmen Santillan, and friend Gary Huerta founded Cena Vegan in October 2015.
"It was still kind of different, and people are scared of what's different," Simms says. "People would say, 'Oh, you guys are vegan? I don't like vegan food.' The early days were tough. I had days when I worked like 6 a.m. to midnight and I made like 17 bucks. I was so down, and Carmen would say, 'We know we have something here.'"
Things have gotten better since then — lines now snake around the block on Tuesday and Friday nights when the stand sets up on the corner of York and 51st, and Cena has been shortlisted as a food festival favorite by VegNews and CBS.
"When we started this company, one of our goals was to reach out as much as we could to Hispanic and Latino communities,” Simms explains.
"Something that we see is that plant-based companies don’t spend a lot of time or money promoting their products to the Hispanic community,” Huerta adds. "They have very little opportunity to find products they can relate to.”
Certainly, veganism (and the health foods industry as a whole) has gotten a lot of slack for being for rich white people. Affordability aside, the general culture of the plant-based movement hasn't been very inclusive of communities of color, either. A lot of this has to do with how global cuisines are translated.
"Mexican-flavored meat substitutes we tried were really watered down for the American market,” Huerta says. Cena Vegan is trying to create full-bodied flavor profiles that ring true to tradition. Many of its marinades — for seitan-based "carne asada," "pollo asado" and "al pastor," as well as the gluten-free, tofu skin–based "barbacoa" — have been passed down in Santillan’s family, from Guadalajara.
"People are like, ‘I don’t want to give up carne asada, I don’t want to go give up traditional foods of my heritage, and so I’m not eating vegan,’” Huerta says. “We’re saying, you can have a really great meal that reminds you of where you came from, of the streets of Ensenada.”
That's not to say that Cena Vegan’s fare is identical to what you'll find on streets all over the Eastside. The guacamole is delivered in thick scoops, with large chunks of avocado. The salsas are a little less salty than at other places. The plant-based meats aren’t as rich or greasy as their traditional counterparts. But they’re flavorful. The adobo-marinated barbacoa is saucy and smoky and sweet, and the texture is toothsome. (It’s made from the cream that rises when you boil soybeans to make tofu; the texture is somewhat similar to the deep-fried tofu pocket of inari sushi).
The founders have tried to keep their prices relatively affordable. While a typical street taco costs about $1.25, Cena's are $3 – on par with the prices at nearby Plant Food for People, and less expensive than a $4 taco at Guerrilla Tacos or a $6 taco at Sage. Their best-selling nacho boats ring in at $8.
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"I think we’re going the opposite way of gentrification,” Huerta says. “We’re actually trying to reach into the Hispanic community and show them that there are accessible ways to eat that don’t involve meat.”
Obesity and diabetes are on the rise among Hispanic populations, he says, citing statistics that first-generation immigrants are, on average, in worse health than their counterparts in home countries. One reason is that immigrants, often short on time and money, find it hard to source familiar ingredients and cook at home when processed food and fast food is often much cheaper. Luz Calvo and Catrióna Rueda Esquibel address this in their book Decolonize Your Diet .
About 60 percent of Cena Vegan's customers are vegan, Simms estimates, and some are younger-generation Latinos who are open to trying plant-based substitutes in a way that their parents aren’t. “Kids will come and buy our meats [available by the half-pound] and take them home and cook for their parents,” he says. “Mexican families are actually coming to us now and buying our products.” The owners hope to make the meats available in retail stores in the near future.
Cena Vegan, Tuesdays and Fridays on the corner of 51st and York Boulevard (look for the tent), Highland Park; every Sunday at Smorgasburg market downtown; cenavegan.com.