A new taco stand called Taco Gringos opened near me recently, catering to a late-night clientele on the way from one drinking establishment to the next. The stand offers three fillings on any given night, each wrapped in a warm corn tortilla. You might find chicken with tomatillo-spiked chile verde, or barbacoa-style beef. Tacos are $2 and Mexican soda is $1.
I stopped in at Taco Gringos during its first week of business and liked everything about the place except for the textured vegetable protein (TVP) in the vegetarian taco. There are a lot of vegetarians in my neighborhood, so the stand certainly needs a meatless taco. Sure, textured vegetable protein is cheap (it’s a byproduct of soybean oil production) and the reconstituted soy flakes are filling. The texture is even reminiscent of ground beef, which is why it’s often used for vegetarian sloppy joes and other meat substitutes. Yes, TVP would make a perfect taco if it didn’t taste like reconstituted soy flakes.
I’m a concerned citizen and nosy neighbor, so I started thinking about TVP-free vegetarian tacos that would satisfy a guy like me, someone whose favorite kind of taco is al pastor (spicy pork bits, sometimes with pineapple). Basically, I made myself an unpaid and uninvited menu consultant.
First, I thought about beans. A corn tortilla with refried beans sounded leaden and dull. So I browned chopped white onion and jalapeños in olive oil and added a can of Goya black beans and a little water. I let it simmer for about half an hour while I made everything else, then finished it with a big squeeze of lime juice. This was not only a completely satisfying taco, it was also vegan—at least until I put sour cream on it.
Next, I tried one with mushrooms. Sauté some criminis and fresh shiitakes in butter. Add minced garlic and chipotle chile powder. Deglaze with a bit of cream and cider vinegar.
Finally, greens. This was the best of all, probably because I stole it from Rick Bayless’s book Mexican Everyday. Brown sliced red onions in olive oil and add shredded Swiss chard, garlic, crushed red chile flakes, and vegetable broth. Cover and cook until the chard is tender, then uncover and evaporate most of the liquid. Top with Mexican queso fresco before serving. The greens end up meltingly soft, with the onions still offering a backbone of crunch.
I made all of these fillings for my family on the same night, and the whole extravaganza took about an hour to put together. A few days later, I went back to Taco Gringos for a veggie taco. This time, it was black beans and TVP, and a staffer topped it off with shredded cabbage tossed in a cilantro vinaigrette—a great topping for any taco, meatless or otherwise. Between bites, I shared my veggie taco ideas.
They were way ahead of me. Taco Gringos did braised collard greens with black-eyed peas for New Year’s Eve. They’ve done black beans sans TVP (“You can only eat so much soy protein,” admitted the staffer on duty). And mushrooms are too expensive for a $2 taco.
Even if you’re an omnivore and already have a neighborhood taco stand or truck, consider throwing a homemade vegetarian taco night. The options are as varied as your local produce department; veggie tacos don’t have that scary orange beef taco runoff; and best of all, you won’t have to resort to textured vegetable protein.