Whittier’s Rising Vegan Scene is Brought to You by Latinx Chefs

Photo taken by Veggie y Que.

Across LA County and OC, Latinx vegans have started to create plant-based scenes in their own cities. Whittier, a city smack dab in the middle of Pico Rivera and Fullerton, has gone from having a few meal options at restaurants to full-blown vegan eateries opening and in the works in just over a year. Until spots like local pop-up Veggie y Que, vegan market and deli Herbal Apothecary and taqueria Masataco hit the scene, there wasn’t much for Latinx vegans to eat that reflected their culture. Los Angeles already has a thriving vegan scene, but it’s hard to convince your abuela to drive out to Echo Park for vegan tacos. So Whittier resident Laura Jardon, owner of pop-up Veggie y Que and vegan festival La Vida Verde, decided to bring the vegan tacos to her family and community instead.

About a year ago, Laura Jardon looked in her fridge and felt like a hypocrite. The meat and animal-based products lining the shelves clashed with her animal rights work. She’d gone to protest slaughterhouses in Pico Rivera and Los Angeles for the past few years, giving pigs and cows their last sips of water before they were driven off to become the meat between your burger buns. But Jardon didn’t want to lose her culture by going vegan and giving up Mexican food. “I thought, ‘ok that’s it, I am going to lose my identity as a Chicana,” Jardon remembers. “I’m going to lose my identity that I grew up with.”

But as she stared into her fridge, she decided she had enough of her cognitive dissonance. She went to the market and ventured into the vegetable aisle, a place she says she didn’t usually shop. Jardon bought a bunch of vegetables, went home, and realized she didn’t know what to make. So she cooked what she would have normally made for dinner: enchiladas, but this time, free from animal products and substituting meat with potatoes and squash. “I was determined to keep what I grew up with,” Jardon says.

Jardon began sharing photos of her vegan Mexican dishes on her personal Instagram. As more people started asking for her recipes and were just generally curious about her food, she decided to start her vegan Mexican pop-up Veggie y Que.

Veggie y Que’s name is intentional- Jardon chose a Spanish phrase to be relevant to the Latina/o/x community. Translated, Veggie y Que means “Vegan, and what?” The phrase “y que?” embodies the attitude she grew up with as a Chicana in Boyle Heights and now as a vegan activist. “Being Latino and going vegan is like a whole other level of people not understanding you,” Jardon describes.

As Veggie y Que grew on Instagram, Jardon decided to take it beyond social media and host a small event in her spacious backyard. She planned on inviting some vendors and was expecting only a few people, mainly her friends and family. This festival dubbed “La Vida Verde” (The Green Life) received hundreds of RSVPs on EventBrite, pushing Jardon to find a bigger location- and this is where Ancient Yoga Studio, owned by chef Denise Portillo, comes in.

At the end of a crystal cleansing workshop in Ancient Yoga Studio just 2 weeks before La Vida Verde’s debut, Jardon approached Portillo and asked if she could use the parking lot as the venue. Portillo immediately agreed. “It wasn’t even by chance- it was fate,” Portillo says. “It was a great collaboration.”

Hundreds of people attended the first La Vida Verde festival last October, and Jardon believes most of the attendees were from Whittier. “There is a big demand for vegan options out here,” she says. She decided to host La Vida Verde in the city she lives in to show her community that embracing your culture and being vegan is possible. “If I bring it to you in your neighborhood, there’s a chance that you might say ‘let’s go check it out.’ And that is my purpose.”

Jardon isn’t the only Whittier resident to showcase another way of eating. Portillo, a chef named Culinary Woman of the Year by the National Latina Business Women’s Association of Los Angeles in 2010, opened Herbal Apothecary in Uptown Whittier last May with an exclusively vegan menu and products. As a deli and a market, she offers prepared meals (cooked by Portillo) and items like vegan cheese, fresh vegetables, and pastries. “I’m just trying to bring better products, healthier products I should say, to the Vegan community,” she says. Vegans, especially new vegans, tend to eat frozen foods and veer towards vegetables like potatoes when they don’t know how to prepare healthy food. Portillo will soon be hosting demonstration classes where she shows participants how to prepare their own food, and they will even get a box of all of her ingredients.

Most of Herbal Apothecary’s customers are from outside of Whittier. “They actually drive from the surrounding cities,” Portillo says. Although Whittier residents are not her largest customer base, Portillo is part of the rising vegan scene attracting people from across all county lines for meat-free, delectable food. Herbal Apothecary offers so much customization and now offers custom made produce boxes: “I am basically your private chef,” Portillo says.

Spices are important ingredients for both Jardon and Portillo to give their food Sazón. For Jardon, spices opened up a new world of eating. “I have a whole cupboard of just spices, when before my spices just consisted of salt, pepper, or garlic powder,” says Jardon. Similarly, Portillo christened her business Herbal Apothecary because she uses herbs and spices in all of her food. “It makes life just much tastier than plain food,” Portillo adds.

Latinx vegans are just beginning to put Whittier on the map. Masataco, a taqueria known for their organic handmade tortillas and vegan tacos, had its grand opening in October 2017 to a horde of excited vegans and non-vegans alike along Lambert Rd in Whittier (I was there, and I can tell you it was worth the wait for their jackfruit fries and buffalo cauliflower tacos). Another new plant-based restaurant called Modern Shaman will soon be opening next to the (legendary) 6740 in Uptown Whittier, but for now, they are teasing their Instagram followers with photos of their vegan menudo and tempura nopales tacos. Vchos Truck, a popular “pupuseria moderna”, stops by Whittier to serve vegan Salvadoran food. Even Vallarta Supermarket in the Whittier Quad has a section dedicated to vegan food.

One Reply to “Whittier’s Rising Vegan Scene is Brought to You by Latinx Chefs”

  1. Beating a Latina & Vegan, this means a lot to me. I chose to be vegan 8 mos now (I did it for the animals) and sometimes I get so tired of eating the same ol thing. I’m so glad people are turning their Mexican dishes without harming any animals. It’s so nice to have vegan restaurants in our neighborhood. I was driving so far on the weekends to Long Beach & Pasadena so I can have a vegan dish. I am a new spa owner and I’m hoping to have vegan dishes for my grand opening soon. I may have to go to some food tasting so I can hire a vegan caterer. See you guys soon.

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