Things are getting good for vegans. Many restaurant menus now offer everything veg, from almond milk to fake shrimp to the Impossible Burger. You can even get a beef substitute at Burger King.
In Monterey, El Cantaro has been leading the vegan way for several years. Owners Luvia Cruz and her husband Hector Sandin have been delivering plant-based lunch and dinner since 2013. As Seventh-day Adventists they close up shop on Saturdays, but it’s their religion that inspires animal-friendly eating in the first place.
Having been through a few vegan stints myself, I know how exciting it is to discover a menu on which I don’t have to ask if anything is vegan, because everything is. For once it’s not skimpy salads and veggie sandwiches sans cheese, it’s a giant (almost overwhelmingly giant) list of Mexican dishes from pozole, memelitas and jalapeño salad to tamales, empanadas and burritos.
At El Cantaro you’ll still find “cheese,” “chickin’” and “steak,” but it’s all animal-free, even the crema. Organic and GMO-free ingredients come standard.
While many vegetarians have been thankful for imitation meat for decades, let’s not forget the value of great cooking by simply using vegetables. Take what they accomplish with the chilaquiles as an example. The dish is topped with earthy sauteed mushrooms, gently caramelized onions and an impressive heap of sliced, ripe avocado.
Don’t skip the crispy potato tacos – hefty little masterpieces showcasing the meeting point of skillfully crunchy tortillas (not oily whatsoever) and warming mashed potatoes. The bright tomatoes of salsa fresca plus crisp lettuce bring coolness to the comforting tacos. They are so enjoyable even carnivores may forget there’s no meat involved.
As for meat substitutes, those uninitiated must go in with an open mind. Not to say that the food isn’t hearty, seasoned and impressive, but rather that if you’re craving a rib-eye, you’re in the wrong place.
The steak “mega” quesadilla brings a plate-size tortilla stuffed with spiced ground “meat” plus melty Daiya and tahini salsa made with fresh sesame seeds. Daiya’s distinguishably cheesy aroma worked nicely alongside the chili spices.
The world has adapted quickly in the last several years as technology has made it easier to learn about the meat-free lifestyle. “When we started, the vegan industry was minimal,” Cruz says. She is happy to talk to any customers who come to the counter with questions about the diet – she’s been vegan for a decade, her husband for most of his life.
“A guy in his mid-50s who eats here three or four times a week has been able to lower his cholesterol, and he’s not the only one,” Cruz claims.
Her enthusiasm for the vegan lifestyle is evident, although the health benefits come from moderation – just as with carnivores and meat. El Cantaro’s dishes just happen to be delicious enough for everyone.