Challenge inspires restaurants to include vegan items on menus
Every October for the past eight years, the Greater Sacramento area has hosted the Vegan Chef Challenge, a summons for local restaurants to feature unique vegan items on their menus. The turnout since 2011 has been brag-worthy, spanning from Rancho-Cordova to Sacramento to Davis, and now, over 80 restaurants participate in the challenge.
Each year brings new restaurants, new recipes and a large community of food lovers with the same objective in mind — to eat as many plant-based delicacies as possible. The challenge has entertained a number of focused competitions between restaurants trying to earn awards from the best dessert to the best burger.
As difficult as it is to imagine a tortilla without barbequed asada (steak) in its grips, Cantina Alley in Midtown, Sacramento quickly cured that skepticism with their take on traditional Mexican food. The restaurant’s vegan ambassador, Aaron Esquivel, gave compelling insight on their experiences with the challenge.
“When I started working at Cantina Alley, the only thing on the menu I could eat was the potato taco with no cheese,” Esquivel said. “That’s it. There were no vegan options. [But] in the 2017 challenge I had them do one vegan dish, […] the vegan sopes, and, like wildfire, they put us on the map. [Upon] creating that menu item, the owners took notice to the vegan market and realized they can provide that demand without compromising any of their promotional goals.”
A traditional Mexican dish normally made of a thick tortilla, beans, cheese, rice and a choice of meat, are featured at Cantina Alley as 100 percent vegan. And they lived up to their reputation. When paired with their imported vegan craft beer, the combination is indescribable.
With or without meat, the sopes are crafted to fool even the most experienced abuelas. In fact, Esquivel says it’s a common practice for customers to order the vegan sopes as a side to their non-vegan entrée, due to their irresistibility. Because of this, the menu at Cantina Alley doesn’t label which items are vegan or not because most items are vegan-interchangeable.
Esquivel went on to comment on the popularity of the challenge and the rising number of vegan customers.
“This challenge shows restaurant owners and the community alike that veganism is not a fad, but a movement,” Esquivel said. “People are passionate about it and are willing to drive anywhere, spend money and go above and beyond to thank servers and chefs when they provide these vegan options. It has provided us with the opportunity to prove that vegan food is more accessible than ever and [that] it can be traditional and remind [us] of home, as well.”
At Golden Roads Brewery of Sacramento, head-chef Alberto Meza, commented on his adventures in vegan culture.
“Although this is [Golden Roads’] first year in the challenge, I started cooking vegan foods three years ago,” Meza said. “I like to create something that brings everyone to the table, including non-vegans. [Something] that everyone wants to give a shot without turning it down just because it’s vegan.”
Their cheesy elotes (street corn), avocado tacos (yes, more tacos) and dippable cauliflower wings were all vegan and delicious. On his process of creating these vegan dishes, Meza admitted it is a challenge.
“It’s a little harder [than creating non-vegan items] because you need to think outside the box and not use everyday ingredients like you normally would,” Meza said. “But whatever is going on in the vegan world, I like to bring it to the locals.”
In fact, Meza recounts not being a big fan of vegan food until he met a chef who taught him how to cook vegan, using spices and replacements for non-vegan ingredients.
“You definitely have to be more creative, whether that be with the spices or a sauce,” Meza said. “You have to know what flavor you’re going for and that is where the creativity comes into play.”
Since a majority of Meza’s recipes taste better than their non-vegan equivalents, I asked how the food fairs with non-vegan customers. Like its Midtown neighbor Cantina Alley, Golden Roads also doesn’t label whether an item is vegan or not.
“I just like to post that there are vegan options available because many of the items we sell are already vegan,” Meza said. “[We find it easier] to do it this way so nobody is scared to order what sounds good to them just because it’s vegan.”
Meza assured the entire vegan menu will continue to be available after the challenge is over, with more additions to come.
Vegan Instagram influencer Cait Luke spoke about her favorite dishes during this year’s challenge.
“I have really prepared this year, which has allowed me to go to many more restaurants,” Luke said. “My favorite part [about the challenge] is that breakfast and desserts have become more of a feature this year. Besides the food, I have connected with a number of people through Facebook and Instagram vegan-circles, who I now get together and have meals with, creating an inclusive community for me, and I love that.”
Luke discussed the difficulties vegans regularly face and how this challenge responds to them.
“One of the biggest problems is the social-factor — not everyone enjoys being dragged to vegan places, but this challenge acts as an anecdote for that issue,” Luke said. “I have had many meals with non-vegan friends, and being able to eat at a location that has options for me, my friends and my family is a great experience.”
Luke went on to discuss the lasting impacts that the Vegan Chef Challenge has.
“I have seen, over the years, that after the challenge, omnivore restaurants permanently implement these vegan options that we, including non-vegans, get to enjoy year round,” Luke said. “It shows restaurants, we are here, we are hungry and we want to give you business in return for the options you’ve provided. [Plus] when we inundate these restaurants every October, it really shows the force of the vegan community.”
The annual Vegan Chef Challenge concluded on Oct. 31. Although the vegan community has to wait 11 more months until the challenge returns, most of the restaurants that competed will offer their vegan menus permanently, allowing all food-lovers to rejoice in a year-round plant-based bliss together.
Written by: Clay Allen Rogers — firstname.lastname@example.org