'For Some People, It’s Insulting to Make Mexican Food Vegan' — The Story of El Palote Panaderia

Al pastor, carnitas, bistec and carne guisada tacos are made with a soy-based meat substitute at El Palote Panaderia.
Al pastor, carnitas, bistec and carne guisada tacos are made with a soy-based meat substitute at El Palote Panaderia. Leah Pickett

In December 2015, El Palote Panadería opened in Pleasant Grove as a traditional Mexican bakery with one notable exception: vegan Thursdays. Word spread on local vegan blogs and Facebook pages, and soon the shop was serving more vegan items during the week and all-vegan menus on weekend nights to satisfy the growing demand. By September 2016, all it took was one vegan customer’s comment for the bakery to become all vegan, all the time.

“Someone messaged us to say, 'I can’t support a business that still sells meat,’" recalls Aaron Arias, the youngest member of the family that owns and operates El Palote. “That really resonated with us. The next week, we cut it out.”

The Arias family, which includes father Aurelio, mother Lily, and their adult sons, Aurelio Jr. and Aaron, began transitioning to a vegan lifestyle about 10 years ago, when Aurelio decided to counteract his severe heart and cholesterol problems by eliminating animal products from his diet. Seeing how rapidly his health improved, the rest of the family followed suit.

“Nobody had a struggle with it like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this,’ because we’d seen it in our father,” Aaron Arias says. “And for him it was, ‘I’m either going to be alive or I’m going to die.’ And for us, we found our own reasons.”

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Al pastor, carnitas, bistec and carne guisada tacos are made with a soy-based meat substitute at El Palote Panaderia.
Leah Pickett
Walking into El Palote, which is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Monday, is like entering a portal hidden in plain sight. The small, red building sits a parking lot’s distance away from the street. Inside, the spot is just as unassuming: yellow walls, a fridge stocked with Mexican Coke and Topo Chico, banda music playing softly overhead. But walk up to the counter, adjacent to a pastry case stuffed with tempting pan dulce, and a “100 percent vegan” sign indicates that this panadería is not like the others.

Besides vegan baked goods, El Palote serves vegan tacos, burritos, tortas, flautas, enchiladas and barbecue sandwiches, as well as tamale plates and menudo on the weekends. The shop is working on a vegan breakfast menu and recently previewed some of the items for a lucky few. Local meat-free group Dallas Vegan Roundup posted both a trial version of the menu and a mouthwatering photo from the event to its Facebook page with a caption that reads, in part, “This jamón con vegg egg biscuit sandwich is absolutely going to blow your mind.”

When I visit El Palote on a Thursday afternoon, breakfast isn’t on the menu yet. Aaron Arias greets me at the counter and suggests I try the tacos to start.

Taco plates are $10.95 and come with sides of veggie rice and refried beans. The four small tacos arrive dressed with chopped onions, cilantro and the customer's choice of six styles of house-made, soy-based “meat.” I opt for al pastor, carnitas, bistec and carne guisada.

“For some people, it’s insulting to make Mexican food vegan. ... I don’t think it’s necessary to cook an animal to make a specific type of food.” – Aaron Arias

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Arias’ parents process the soy themselves, he says, and they used to make the tortillas in house too, before the customer influx outpaced the supply and they had to start outsourcing from other local businesses. The tortillas are the perfect combination of fluffy and sturdy, and the hunks of chewy, lightly seasoned soy inside each taco taste remarkably like the meats they’re imitating.

“If you ask my father about it, he says that most of these recipes came to him in dreams,” Arias says, chuckling. “He’s very firm about it. One day he’ll have a different bread, and he’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I had a dream about that one and how to make the egg for that one.’”

Arias says that his parents also came up with the egg and lard substitutes for the pastries since most traditional Mexican breads contain both. I don’t miss either when I bite into each of the two pastries that Arias and his employee say are the best in the shop.

The first is a Mexican tofu cream-cheese danish, its outer spirals so savory and flaky they practically beg to be torn off in strips and dunked in the center. The second is a warm, dense and spongy slice of sweet bread, oozing Earth Balance butter through a dusting of cinnamon and sugar sprinkles.

The recipes haven’t always been this good, Arias says, which is largely why he was the last member of his family to go fully vegan, about five years after his parents did.

“It was a lot of trial and error,” he says. "The food did not taste like how it tastes now."

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The door to El Palote Panaderia doesn't have a sign announcing that it's a vegan restaurant.
Leah Pickett
In the beginning, he adds, just switching to vegan rice and beans was an adjustment for the family.

“I remember growing up, my grandma used to make the best rice, but it had a couple ladles of lard in it,” Arias says. “And in our household, the rice had lard, the beans had lard. So that was the first thing we made at the house that was vegan.”

Arias also knows how difficult it can be to present even the tiniest of adjustments to deeply ingrained cultural perceptions and traditions around food.

“I’m from a little town in Mexico where they still do rooster fights,” he says. “My family and I go back every year, but if we went back and tried to preach, per se, about animal cruelty, nobody would get it. Nobody would understand it. Nobody would want to.

"Which is why we don’t have a specific sign outside that says we’re vegan,” Arias continues. “I feel like if we put that up, it would close the minds of a lot of people who would otherwise have come in to check us out. And with those people, I think it’s way easier once they’re inside and I’m talking to them to convince them to try at least a little taco.”

Whether new customers are vegans or nonvegans, they tend to have a lot of questions, Arias says. The vegans want to know if the place really is 100 percent vegan, and the nonvegan folks wonder: why vegan Mexican food in the first place?

“For some people, it’s insulting to make Mexican food vegan,” Arias explains. “We used to get messages on Facebook from people who were genuinely insulted, which if you ask me is kind of childish. I don’t think it’s necessary to cook an animal to make a specific type of food.”

But sometimes backlash is inevitable, Arias says, like when El Palote agreed to cater vegan tacos for a bridal shower.

"A lot of the guests decided not to come and even called in to say, ‘If you’re going to have vegan food, I don’t want to go,’" Arias says. "We get that a lot from people who buy our food and take it home to their families, who don’t want to eat it. People don’t want to try it because as soon as you say ‘vegan,’ it’s something else.”

According to Arias, approaching the subject from a health benefits standpoint usually works better.

“I want everybody in this community in particular to look into that lifestyle as a possibility, something feasible that they can do,” Arias says, “if not every day, at least one day of the week, and then eventually, maybe, as a full-time lifestyle.”

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The restaurant serves baked good such as a Mexican tofu cream-cheese danish, as well as tacos, burritos and more.
Leah Pickett
Luckily, for vegans and vegan businesses like El Palote, times are changing. Arias says he's seen it in the number of people who have traveled from as far as Denver and Washington, D.C., to visit the bakery and in how El Palote has garnered a small following in London after an outlet shared its story there.

"Since then, we've received a lot of messages and a lot of love from around the world," Arias says. He'd like to put up a map inside the shop so customers can mark where they came from when they visit.

Minds in the community are changing too, Arias notes. He's seen it firsthand.

“When we started out, we had this older gentleman who used to come in, this really old Mexican guy," Arias says. "He’d always giggle when he’d get bread, and he’d always tell me, ‘I’m going to open one of these too, just wait. I’m going to open one right next to you. I’m gonna be better than y'all.’

"And I was like, ‘OK,’" Arias continues. "He’d come in on a weekly basis just to tell me that. So I know for sure that people are thinking about it."

El Palote Panadería, 2537 S. Buckner Blvd.
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Leah Pickett writes about music, art and culture for the Dallas Observer. She also reviews films for the Chicago Reader and works as an editor at BNP Media. Besides writing, she likes to read, drink coffee, immerse herself in American New Wave cinema and listen to at least five podcasts a day.

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