Hold the Beef! Eating Vegetarian in the City
(first published in The News, 2008, updated 2017)
Being a vegetarian in Mexico is no easy task--we’re deeply entrenched in a meat-loving culture. Mexico City’s air plays host to competing breezes from smoke-belching cars and simmering pork shanks. You can’t escape it.
I grew up surrounded by Hezbollah-like advocates of every type of diet from dairy-free to raw-foods-only. My mother’s food bible in the ‘70’s was “Diet For a Small Planet”—it should have been called “The Joylessness of Cooking”. I’ve eaten my share of tasteless tofu and meatless burgers, which made me want to run to the nearest chicken & ribs joint. Fortunately, the days of eating without meat have taken a new turn. We’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be about denial, or lack of flavor.
While most streets here seem to host one ‘tacos de cabeza’ stand or an Argentine parilla, the pleasant surprise is that there are many meatless options in the city. Two types of strictly vegetarian restaurants exist: the old style “regular-food-but-hold-the-beef” type places, some of which have been around longer than Gaylord Hauser. Then there are the fast-food health joints, recent arrivals, the “California” stickers still on their luggage. I tried several of both. I found vegetarian versions of Mexican classic dishes, new age ‘faux-meat’ concoctions, and lots of plain boiled vegetables and fresh salad.
Northern concepts of what is and isn’t vegetarian may be unfamiliar here. I’ve ordered “vegetarian pozole” and been served broth made with pork stock, but without the addition of shredded meat. Likewise, “dairy-free” is not a common concept, nor is total vegan-ism. So if you subscribe to these diets, you have to explain your needs carefully. For those who eat fish, there are no end of good seafood places. The street food scene can be veg-friendly: just find any quesadilla or gordita stand. Many “tacos de guisado” places offer vegetable or egg fillings (be sure to ask if they are augmented by ham or sausage).
The Old Style: A few old-fashioned vegetarian restaurants survive, leftover from the days when people who didn’t eat meat were seen as long-haired poetry-reading eccentrics. Comedor Vegetariano has been serving non-carnivores in the centro for the past 79 years. You enter a, unkempt hallway and follow the yellowing signs to the second floor, a time-warp space where little has changed since the old days. Two tables perched in the balcony windows look out over recently remodeled, lively Calle Motolinia. The “menu del día” offers a satisfying salad buffet – there are at least five bountiful mixed salads and several bowls of prepared fresh fruit. Main dishes are meatless versions of Mexican standards.
The tostadas de tinga, made with soya, are authentic and mildly picante – two mountains ofguisado, lettuce, tomato and cream. Portions are generous here. Other temptations are the flautas filled with potato, or enchiladas of mole de tamarindo, a fruity, light mole served over tortillas. The menu includes a pitcher of prepared agua de sabor (fresh fruit water) and whole wheat bread. At $57 pesos, it’s a bargain and, I suspect, attracts normally carnivorous penny-pinchers as well as serious vegetarians. Best of all is the live music emanating from a creaky upright piano, evidently in place since Agustin Lara was a boy. I love this place.
Good alternatives with similar menus are Yug, in the Zona Rosa and Restaurante Elehir in Colonia Roma. Yug is another old timer, around since the ‘60’s and has a large menu and good breakfasts. Elehir is a small, local hangout, located in the “carnitas zone” around the Mercado Medellin, which features an economical comida corrida.
The New Wave At the top of the list of contemporary American-style, organic food restaurants is Orígenes Orgánicos, in the heart of La Condesa, and it’s sister venue Eco-Bistrotin Polanco. Both offer clean multi-cultural food in pleasant terrazza settings. The Condesa location has tables facing the tranquil, Art Deco Plaza Popocateptl. It’s connected to a small, but well stocked store featuring organically grown products. The large menu boasts that 85% of the ingredients used are organic. I had to try the vegetarian burger, the benchmark of any veggie joint. It is flavorful, and happily, served with two choices from the salad bar instead of the usual disappointing fries. The salad bar offers half a dozen filling choices: I liked the green bean and mushroom salads and the“Thai” salad (although their geography is confused--there’s nothing Thai about yogurt, cucumbers and ginger). Main dishes are ample: spaghetti with pan-toasted tofu chunks and a light cream-tomato sauce was as well done as anything you might get in an Italian trattoria (it was also huge and could be shared). A lighter option is the daily vegetable tart, served with your choice of two salads. Breakfasts are also good - standard eggs, but nicely done and decent coffee.
Origines Organicos is not strictly vegetarian, but more than half the items on the menu are marked with a “V", making it easy to choose. The Polanco branch has a similar, but smaller menu. It also features outdoor dining by the peaceful Parque Lincoln. Both offer home delivery as well.
Other good options are Frutos Prohibidos (flagship in Condesa, several branches around town), and The Green Corner(several locations around the city). The former is a busy shop specializing in “wraps”, or burrito-type sandwiches, accompanied by clean, fresh salads and fruit juices. It seems to be popular with the under 30 crowd and has a ‘see-and-be-seen’ counter facing tree-lined Avenida Amsterdam. The Green Corner is the largest healthfood store chain in the city. It’s restaurant offers a small menu of “salud” conscious food, although not 100% vegetarian. The Condesa location was featured on Rick Bayless’s PBS program “Mexico – One Plate At A Time”.
Forever Vegano (see below) are new options offering more refined vegan cooking.
So even if you crave tacos al pastor, or salivate at the thought of a juicy steak, it’s good for ALL of us to be vegetarian, at least sometimes. We’ll live longer.
Comedor Vegetariano Motolinía 31 – 5 1er. piso, centro Open 1-6 Monday-Saturday
Orígenes Orgánicos Plaza Popocatépetl 41ª , Col. Condesa, Tel.- 5208 6678, 5525-9359 Open Monday-Friday 8AM-10PM; Saturday 9-6, Sunday 10-6 www.origenesorganicos.com
Eco-Bistrot by Orígenes Orgánicos Virgilio 9, (entrance on Oscar Wilde) Polanco Tel. 5281-5080 Hours same as above www.ecobistrot.com
Also worth trying are:
Por Siempre Tacos Veganos Delivers what it promises, that is, vegan tacos. The stand attracts a large crowd of young anti-carnivores as well as locals and passers-by who don't seem to care because they're GOOD! They're just like the "real thing" only made with tofu, soy cheese and other non-carny foodstuffs. The faux chorizo is outstanding. This stand is located near the corner of Chiapas and Manzanillo, Roma, open Monday-Saturday 2:00 p.m. to midnight)
Forever Vegano Is another new option for more refined vegan dishes. There are branches in Roma (Guanajuato 54) and Polanco (Mazaryk 74, corner of Arquimedes)
La Casa del Pan Av. México 25 (corner of Xicoténcatl), Coyoacán Tel. 3095-1767 open M-F 8AM-10PM, S&S 9AM-10PM www.casadelpan.com
Restaurante Elehir Monterrey 241, near Coahuila, Colonia Roma Tel. 5584-8464 Open daily for comida only
The Green Corner Mazatlán 81, Condesa Tel.1054-7699 All branches are open 7:30AM- 10PM
Av. Miguel Angel Quevedo No. 353 Tel.: 5554-4514, 2457-3420
Homero 1210 near Moliere, Polanco Tel.. 3093-8290, 5203-6078
José Ma. Castorena No. 395 3er. Piso, Plaza Cuajimalpa, Col. Cuajimalpa Centro. Tel. 2163 3892 , 2452 8365 www.thegreencorner.org
Vegetamal Cruz Azul no. 160 (between Excelsior and Victoria), Col. Industrial Tel: 5537-1701 Open from Monday to Saturday, 8:30 to 22:00, Sunday, 8:30 to 18:00. This may be the only place in town that makes truly vegetarian tamales.
Vege Taco Carrillo Puerto 65 Coyoacan A good option for meat-free tacos
Tacos “Hola” Amsterdam 135, Condesa Open Monday-Saturday about 1-6 but hours can be erratic. Everybody in the Condesa knows this little hole-in-the-wall, written up in Saveur Magazine. They have several vegan options.
Yug Varsovia 3, Col, Juarez Tel. 5533-3296 Open Monday-Friday 7AM-9PM; Saturday and Sunday, 8:30-8PM
Frutos Prohibidos Amsterdam 244-B, at the corner of Michoacán Col. Condesa Tel. 5264-5808 Mon-Fri 8-22hrs, Sat., Sun. 10-18hrs
For a more complete list of vegetarian restaurants near you see: www.haztevegetariano.com
This article first appeared in The News. Cover photo by Rodrigo Oropeza
Felipe June 10, 2009 Tasteless tofu?? Now, now. The beauty of tofu is that it takes on the taste of whatever it´s cooked with. It´s very versatile.
NG replies: But in the hands of a pious vegan chef, it can take on the flavor of cardboard…
Davemx June 10, 2009 Do you the Saveur issue in which Tacos Hola is mentioned? I'm a subscriber but haven't read anything on the Condesa yet... Thanks!
Don Cuevas June 11, 2009 I loved this line: "I grew up surrounded by Hezbollah-like advocates of every type of diet from dairy-free to raw-foods-only. My mother’s food bible in the ‘70’s was “Diet For a Small Planet”—it should have been called “The Joylessness of Cooking”. " I had to laugh. Saludos, Don Cuevas
NG replies: I don't know which issue of Saveur Tacos Hola appeared in, but I think the article was about street food, or authentic food around the world, not specifically Mexico or Condesa.
Pelon January 23, 2010 In the 4+ years I've lived in el DF I've been sickened by food exactly 3 times. Once from some frozen ground turkey made in the USA, once on a visit home to San Francisco, and once at Comedor Vegetariano. I'm guessing what got me was something off the salad buffet. I eat on the street all the time, and in some late night moments at some pretty dingy places, yet I've never had a problem. A recent visitor had a hard time keeping vegetarian. Mealtime was always a downer -- depressing for a proud host. Thanks for your recommendations, My next veggie guest is coming next week and now I have something to work with.
Mark February 11, 2010 This is only my second time here but had great veg food here last time. Try happycow.net for an extensive listing.