When you taste Raul Medina’s “chorizo,” “barbacoa” or “asada” tacos, you could be forgiven for thinking you are actually eating meat.
That’s because Medina’s Tuesday-only pop-up stand, tucked away in the back far-right corner at Mission Bar at 3rd Ave. and Main St. in Santa Ana, is probably the last place you’d expect to find vegan street food for just $3 per taco.
This is not fancy food. Medina simply happens to make street tacos and nachos that just happen to not have meat in them. As you wait in line–and there is always a line–Medina presses corn tortillas into his gas-fired griddle with a gloved hand. The savory, pungent spices of chorizo wafting through the air is no different than the smell emanating from hundreds of kitchens in Santa Ana or Mexico . Most of the folks in line are young Latinos who either aren’t vegan or really don’t care either way, but who know one thing for sure: They are really going to love their meal.
“I do what I do because of my immigrant background,” Medina says. “Immigrants want something they crave and that is familiar. I want to show other chefs a good vegan taco that’s cheap. My tacos will always be $3, and guac is always free. It’s important for me for people to know that [Santa Ana] is not Silver Lake. If you are going to feed people in Santa Ana, you compete with the rest of Santa Ana. I want vegan tacos to be synonymous with Venganza.”
Medina also has a ramen pop-up with a massive following. Ramen Ayala, a moveable feast of broth and noodles filled to the brim with a Mexican-infused umami flavor. People come from all over California to taste his creations. Unlike the tacos, though, the ramen, at $25 a bowl, isn’t cheap. But judging by the long lines, the soup is worth the cash.
But back to Medina’s tacos. His “chorizo”is made of beets and it has a wonderfully rich and crumbly texture, similar to the texture you get with traditional chorizo made from pork. The spices he uses meld congruously into a decadent mouth feel, with no one spice overpowering the other. Pour a generous amount of his salsa–sometimes his mom makes it, even though he insists he prefers his own–and add a sprinkle of cilantro, and you can easily eat three or four tacos without feeling too heavy.
The “asada” has less spice and a firmer, more silky texture with a slightly charred flavor. It goes perfectly with a cold beer. The “barbacoa” boasts a juicy, pulled-pork consistency that makes it satisfying and toothsome. And amazingly, given the predictable preponderance of exotic fruit in vegan cuisine–Medina does it all without any jackfruit whatsoever.
Despite the fact he lives in L.A., Medina either takes a bus or hitches a ride to Santa Ana ever week to pay tribute to his hometown roots. “Taco chefs came before everyone,” he recalls of his childhood. “There was no Taco Maria in Santa Ana, there were taco trucks. The $ 1 taco is ubiquitous to Santa Ana.” Medina is concerned that Santa Ana is quickly becoming a place where people come to get a craft beer or cocktail, a $20 entree, and then go home.
Medina wants people of all backgrounds, ethnicities and lifestyles to have access to healthy and delicious food, but he isn’t willing to compromise on quality. Medina does not call himself “cruelty free,” (or non-GMO, or organic,) on purpose. And he has no patience for overpriced meals. “When I see other vegan pop-ups charging $12 for vegan patties they bought at the store, it does a disservice to veganism,” he argues.
“I want people to come eat my tacos not just to have vegan food. I want them to have really good food, and not have to label it vegan. My tacos are for everyone.”