By Jeff Kronenfeld, December 2020 Issue.
Ironically, Keyla Aguilar’s journey to veganism began when she worked at a burger joint. Her then manager was a proud vegetarian, which helped inspire Aguilar to go herbivore. These days Aguilar, the co-owner of Earth Plant Based Cuisine, is still dishing out burgers — as well as tacos, burritos, and other classic Mexican dishes — only now she gets to share in the feast knowing that no animals were harmed in the making.
When Aguilar first gave up the carnivorous lifestyle, it caused some headaches around her family’s dinner table. Meat was an essential part of the traditional Hispanic cuisine they shared, or so it seemed. After two and a half years as a vegetarian, Aguilar finally relented to her parent’s protestations about the difficulty in accommodating her diet. However, soon her little sister jumped on the plant-eating bandwagon too. A familial tipping point was reached and a few weeks later her parents also made the plunge. Soon after, the whole family went vegan.
While carnitas and chicharrones were out, the Aguilar clan refused to give up the traditional tapestry of spices and textures that had always brought them together at mealtime. Of course, they had to show a little flexibility and patience in order to get there.
“It took a while to transition all of the recipes to vegan,” Aguilar explained. “There was a lot of trial and error, but we still liked our food, our flavor.”
Their experimentation proved fruitful. Soon they were eating healthier than ever without scrimping any on taste. Another benefit was cooking and cleaning sans animal flesh proved simpler and faster. This was good because, vegan or not, demand for their eats quickly outstripped supply.
“Every time we would have a family gathering or a potluck or something, we would bring our food,” Aguilar explained. “People would always like it even if they weren’t vegan. Our food would always be finished before everyone else’s.”
The Aguilar sisters started discussing taking their family cookbook pro. They surveyed the Phoenix food scene. There were many Mexican restaurants and a few vegan eateries, but no specifically Mexican vegan ones. A lot of places offered token or place-holder vegan options that didn’t do much to dispel the idea that such food is bland and boring. A restaurant serving vegan dishes that even the most blood-thirsty diners could enjoy seemed like the perfect niche.
First things first, they found a space on Grand Avenue in the same shopping complex as Cha Cha’s Tea Lounge. The family put the planet-friendly policies they used in the kitchen into practice during construction. Everything that could be saved or reused was, including building tables and a ceiling from old wooden pallets. On September 5, 2019, Earth Plant Based Cuisine had its grand opening.
Of course, after a few months of success, COVID-19 reared its spikey viral head. Even as the new restaurant shutdown in-person dining during the pandemic’s earlier days, community support kept rolling in. While things looked bleak, enough business kept coming to keep the new spot open. In the recent weeks, Aguilar has seen orders slowly growing again.
My first visit came on a Wednesday evening in late October. I found it easy to place my order online and then set off towards the westside. Finding a spot for my vehicle was likewise a breeze since the shopping complex sports its own ample parking lot, saving me the headache of parallel parking on the busy diagonal thoroughfare.
The complex also boasts a massive, bricked courtyard and covered outside dining area, something so critical for a restaurant’s success in these plague-ridden times. In fact, while I planned to dine and dash — after picking up and paying for my to-go meal, of course — the spacing of the dining tables on the patio made me feel comfortable enough to eat there, the first time I’ve done so in a very long time. The staff quickly switched my meal to real plates with no fuss. As I watched a classic pink and lavender Arizona sunset, I felt some small sense of normalcy returning, if only until I foolishly glanced at the day’s headlines on my phone.
For starters, the affordable pricing allowed a friend and I to enjoy a meat-free feast. There was even enough leftover in the dining budget for a second visit the following day. Normally good vegan food costs an arm and a leg, but this place saves both animal and financial appendages.
For an appetizer, we ordered the chorizo fries. They were buried under a massive pile of meatless chorizo, guacamole, tomatoes, onions, and plenty of cheese sauce. The fries remained crisp and warm despite the mountain of smokey, citrus-infused toppings. This could serve as a meal for one or possibly even two.
We also tried the buffalo wings, which really are something special. Not only did the fake meat come liberally slathered in a tangy buffalo glaze, but they also even sported “bones.” While not actual skeleton, these made for easy handling and really added to the carnivorous verisimilitude. Chewy, meaty, and smothered in smokey sauce, I felt a bit like Fabio in that I almost couldn’t believe this was really all vegan. A house-made ranch rounded out this delightful dish, which I highly recommend.
I was already loosening my belt when we started our main courses. I opted for the Bruno burger, which bears a striking resemblance to the platonic ideal of a Big Mac you might see in some glossy ad. Like the wings, the delight is in the cook’s attention to detail. The golden bun is bedazzled with lightly charred sesame seeds. The large, thick patty slightly overhangs the bun, just as I prefer. Thousand island dressing, onions, tomatoes, and fresh lettuce complete the package.
My dining companion went for an order of three “Fish” tacos. These were each little works of art decorated with purple cabbage, red tomatoes, and a glowing orange sauce. Tucked under this riot of color were plenty of chunks of soy-based faux fish. Again, the realness of the fake meat is greatly enhanced by the careful spicing and fresh accoutrements. Still, the star of this dish had to be the tortillas themselves. Baked in house, they were soft like goose-down pillows yet also plenty chewy.
Walking back to our vehicle, we caught sight of a nearby couple sharing a luxurious looking diary-free milkshake. We couldn’t quite find the room for it that evening or during the next day’s lunch I was already plotting, but the pair of lovers looked as content in their dessert as they did with each other.
The following afternoon, my gluttony again conspired with Earth’s well-priced menu. Even after all that food the night before, I was able to order a crazy “shrimp” burrito and a hot diggity dog without going over budget. It was too much for one man, but that didn’t stop me from inhaling it all before retiring for a delightfully unproductive afternoon food coma.
The meatless hot dog came loaded with colorful toppings and a heaping portion of golden fries. An homage to the southwest’s world-famous Sonoran dogs, this protein cylinder was smothered in not only ketchup and mustard, but also pinto beans, crema, avocado salsa, tomatoes and onions. This good dog offers a whole lot of bark for the buck.
Getting a little fishier, I then ordered a fake shrimp burrito on the owner’s recommendation. I was glad I did. I actually enjoyed the fake shrimp ever so slightly more than the fake fish from the day before. The breading, texture and flavor were so real. Aguilar explained they use seaweed to capture that certain oceanic essence, which means big flavors and big phytonutrients. Again, the tortillas warm chewiness made it far more than just a vehicle for the tasty innards. The fake shrimp can also be had on tacos, which I think I’ll try on my next visit.
If you need to feed a family of mixed palettes on a limited budget, Earth Plant Based Cuisine is just the planet for you. This West Side treat is a true triple threat: tasty, affordable and environmentally conscious. What more could you or Mother Earth ask for?