Black bean burgers, plant-based beef empanadas, arepas with plant-based cheese and deep-fried tacos were just some of the Latin dishes featured at this year’s Vegandale Festival held in New York City this September. This year’s fest brought about 150 vendors to Randall’s Island for a full day of food, music and entertainment, including about eight Latin food vendors.
There’s a stereotype that vegan food is “not flavorful,” said Danny Carabano, co-owner of VSpot, a Latin restaurant in Brooklyn that specializes in Colombian and Mexican comfort food, and a Vegandale vendor since the festival’s founding in 2017. “Latin food just happens to be flavorful,” said Carabano, who runs his restaurant with his brother and co-owner Alex Carabano. The brothers argue that Latin food derives its flavor from the sauces, not the meat, and aims to prove that Latin vegan food can be as delicious as meat-based dishes that are the staple of Colombian and Mexican cuisine.
The Vegandale festival coincided with Hispanic Heritage month, a decades-long celebration of United States Latino culture and history occurring in the middle of September instead of the beginning to coordinate with national independence days in several Latin American countries.
Blenlly Mena, the owner of Next Stop Vegan, a Dominican restaurant and another Vegandale vendor, sees a boost in her business during Hispanic Heritage Month. Mena, who is a Bronx native, believes a month celebrating Hispanic Heritage brings Latin cultures and countries together through food. “I believe the importance of Latin food in general is a representation of fun and family,” Mena said.
Latin vegan food is experiencing a surge in popularity—the result of both a growing health consciousness among Latinos and the growth of the Latino population, which has increased 19% in the U.S. to 62.5 million, over the past 11 years. Recent research showing that replacing red meat with other protein sources reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes has helped win vegan converts among Latinos.
“I felt like I needed to change my diet and when I met Blenlly, that was the trigger for me,” said Alexander Batista who is Puerto Rican and met Mena, of Next Stop Vegan, during college. He decided to try veganism after dealing with severe back problems. Batista’s new plant-based lifestyle helped him lose 20 pounds and has alleviated his back problems, says Batista.
High levels of red-meat consumption also increase the risk of colorectal, stomach and pancreatic cancers, as well as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Close to half of Hispanic men and women aged 20 and over are obese, according to the CDC. However, only a reported 3% of Latinos stick to a vegan lifestyle.
“We thankfully now see more Latinos going plant-based,” said Alex Carabano, co-owner of the VSpot restaurant. He remembers when Hispanic pedestrians would come into VSpot “disappointed that we didn’t have meat.” Carabano notices more people becoming educated on food choices that promote health benefits. “We actually get a lot of people who are carnivore/omnivore, but they just want to skip it for a meal and they know they’ll be satisfied with our menu,” Carabano said.
Mena, who began making vegan meals at home and, then, started selling meal kits to her Instagram followers, now adheres to a strict vegan diet. She started her business in 2017 while she lived overseas.
After moving back home to the Bronx, she started putting a vegan twist on her family’s Dominican, traditionally meat-heavy recipes such as sancocho (seven-Meat Stew), pollo guisado (braised chicken), as well as empanadas and mofongo all made with meat. One of Mena’s goals is to satisfy meat-loving customers with vegan options that have the meaty textures they’re accustomed to eating. Next Stop Vegan uses vegan alternative beef. The restaurant also makes a unique quinoa mix for empanadas.
Angela Villarreal discovered Next Stop Vegan at Vegandale, this fall, when she was considering cutting back on meat for the sake of her own health. Villarreal called their carne (beef) empanada very delicious and flavorful. “It was really good. I didn’t miss the meat at all.”
Erica Ramos, who opened Pinche Vegana NYC, in July 2021, drew inspiration from the loaded nachos, burritos and taco dishes her Mexican grandmother used to cook and adapted them to plant-based recipes. “Everything is created from scratch,” she said. Jackfruit and soy crumbles serve as meat substitutions for her dishes.
Ramos’s menu includes vegan adaptations of burritos, deep fried tacos and enchiladas. “There’s so much flavor in each bite, said Ramos. “You will not walk away missing any flavor, guaranteed.”
Ramos, who visited Vegandale last year for the first time, returned this year with her own tent as an official vendor at the festival. Her white tent sported Mexican flags and a tabled covered in a cloth with her restaurant’s logo. Many eager customers waited in front of her tent for their deep-fried tacos and jackfruit burritos. “I thought, ‘You know what? I have to do this next year.’ So, I’m here,” said Ramos.
Danny Carabano isn’t limiting his celebration of Latino Heritage to just one month in the fall. However, he appreciates the awareness that the Latino Heritage month brings to others who may not be familiar with Latin and Spanish cultures.
VSpot isn’t located in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, but, rather, in a West Indian area with many customers who aren’t vegan. Their menu includes Colombian “Bandeja Paisa” plates with crispy chicharrones, Mexican ground-seitan seasoned carne molida burritos, crispy empanadas and marinara Lasagna. “You don’t have to be vegan to enjoy our tasty comfort food,” said Alex Carabano. Nor, apparently, do you have to be Latino to enjoy the restaurant’s vegan-twist on Latin specialties.