Saturday, June 15, 2024

Fat Vegan bellies up to the Mexico City meatless table

In a tiny nook along a busy stretch of San Luis Potosí street in Mexico City’s Roma Norte neighborhood the kitchen is bustling at Fat Vegan, as burgers flip and fries and “wings” drown in boiling oil.

It’s a bit of a 1950s soda counter vibe. The friendly staff decked out in Fat Vegan hats and T-shirts whisk by with expertly created soft-serve ice cream shakes in fountain glasses, while the company mascot, Pancho Vegan, watches over everything from his post above the entrance.

Roma Norte has become the epicenter of CDMX’s vegan movement (meaning all menu items are 100% plant-based – no animal products). Fat Vegan opened in November and is the newest addition, nestling among favorites like Por Siempre Vegana Taquería, Los Loosers, and Forever Vegano.

But Fat Vegan’s doing it a little differently. They sling comfort food: a burger joint eschewing the notion that vegetarian food should necessarily be “health food.” Their menu simply revels in flavor and is quickly becoming a local favorite, as each week they break new sales records to become the go-to home for vegans, the vegan-curious, and straight-up meat eaters (that might otherwise avoid vegetarian offerings).

The last thing Zack Bezunartea wanted to do after moving to Mexico City from New York was to open another restaurant. He’d opened at least a dozen in the U.S. “I moved here for the same reason [every other expat] does,” says Bezunartea. “I was sick of my corporate job.”

Papanachos with everything are a sight to behold.
Papanachos with everything are a sight to behold.

Papanachos with everything are a sight to behold.So, Bezunartea and his partner, Rodrigo Rodríguez, “jumped off the cliff” and quit their jobs, moving to Roma about a year and a half ago. “Leaving New York, we didn’t have any plans,” says Bezunartea. “Not only did we not have plans, I swore it wouldn’t be in the restaurant industry.” 

But once they’d settled in, Bezunartea realized that restaurants were what he knew – and knew well – so he started experimenting with vegan burgers.

“We knew what kind of menu we wanted, but it was hard to figure out how to develop it with vegan ingredients. We probably started six months before we opened. For the burger we went through maybe 50 or 60 versions before we got to the final recipe. I worked on it really hard on my own and then, what’s great about having always been in the restaurant industry, is that I have trained chefs on my side, and a few of them that are investors. They came down and helped me fine-tune the recipes to get something that was really unique.”

Their signature Fat Vegan Burger is quite intentionally Mexican, using native ayocote beans and huitlacoche (the national corn fungus delicacy), as well as soy protein, local mushrooms, and a number of native spices.

“Something that’s very cool about this neighborhood and cool about opening,” continues Bezunartea, “is that, literally, everything that goes into that burger comes from this neighborhood. We did a collaboration with Pancracia on Calle de Chiapas and Orizaba – they’re doing our burger buns. The flour tortillas come from La Trigueña in the Medellín Market. All of our produce comes from Paty, which is a family run stand in Medellín. They do a daily delivery of all our produce. [Japanese grocery store] Mikasa sources all of our tofu. It’s been sort of a community effort.

“Everything we need is just three or four blocks away from us. We have our little wagon, and we go around and buy everything. And all of a sudden, you have all these strong ties, and it’s very rewarding. Sure, they buy from big companies, and we’re all part of a supply chain. But the idea that you keep a lot of that money in this micro-economy of Roma Norte is very cool.”

Fat Vegan's sweet and savory malteada ice cream shakes will keep you coming back for more.
Fat Vegan’s sweet and savory malteada ice cream shakes will keep you coming back for more.

Among the other favorites at Fat Vegan are the Alitas Búffalo – breaded and fried tofu “wings” with an absolutely spot-on spicy buffalo sauce that they developed in-house. Their Papanachos – nacho French fries topped with soy chorizo, beans, mock cheddar and mozzarella, onion, jalapeño, and “Fat Sauce” are so good that Bezunartea says they brought a young vegan acolyte to tears because he simply couldn’t believe that the chorizo and cheese hadn’t come from an animal. He thought they’d tricked him into eating meat. 

And absolutely don’t miss the “ice cream” malteada menu, with homespun frozen soy combinations mixed with peanut butter, pretzel, coffee, banana, mango – sweet and salty mixes to delight even the most pro lactose. 

Although he went against his original judgment, returned to the restaurant business, and is pretty overwhelmed these days with 60+ hours of work, Bezunartea feels good running a restaurant in Mexico City. 

“The owners of other vegan restaurants in Roma have been extremely supportive,” he says. “And within the first few weeks they came into Fat Vegan to introduce themselves. And that was great because you never know how you’re going to be received as foreigners opening up in a new neighborhood. People have been extremely, extremely receptive.

“When you think of what Mexico offers,” Bezunartea continues, “… anything you can think of: art, design, etc. … There’s room for experimentation and having fun. That’s what got me to opening a restaurant. I don’t think we would have done this in New York. Our branding and everything was a ‘fuck you’ to the corporate restaurant world. Here you can be authentic and not contrived.”

When you’re wandering around Roma, keep your eyes peeled for the Fat Vegan hand-pulled wagon full of tofu, veggies, pretty much everything they use. Follow it over to one of the best new restaurants in the neighborhood. You won’t be disappointed. 

• Fat Vegan: San Luis Potosí 130, Roma Norte, Mexico City

• Closed Monday; Tuesday: 1:00 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.; Wed-Sat: 10:00 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.; Sunday: 10:00 a.m. – 8 p.m.

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