Various programs in Albuquerque have made the dream of opening a restaurant accessible to people traditionally underrepresented in the business.
Fledgling chefs learn the tricks of the trade at Central New Mexico Community College’s culinary arts program or in the commercial kitchen at the South Valley Economic Development Center. They find guidance at WESST, the women’s business incubator, and the Street Food Institute and the Rail Yards provide venues for them to test the waters.
The pipeline has produced numerous success stories in recent years. Kattia Rojas went from the Rail Yards to a storefront at El Vado Motel on Central with her Costa Rican-inspired Buen Provecho. Ronsuelvic Cavalieri parlayed guidance from WESST to open Cacho’s, her Venezuelan bistro inside Sawmill Market. And then there’s the most prominent example, Marie Yniguez, who cut her teeth at SVDC before launching Bocadillos Slow Roasted and finding fame on Food Network.
The lowered barrier to entry has contributed not only to a diversity in restaurant ownership but also in food choices. Elizabeth Bibiano, chef and owner of Vegos, hatched the idea for a vegan New Mexican concept during her time studying and training at CNM and the Street Food Institute. She debuted at the Rail Yards Market in 2019, and her vegan versions of Mexican dishes such as enchiladas, rellenos and empanadas were such a hit that she and her husband, Jonathan, launched a second truck devoted to vegan chicken-like tenders and sandwiches.
And now, a brick-and-mortar restaurant is on the way, scheduled to open this summer.
In the meantime, Vegos continues to serve its excellent Nobody Calls Me Chicken sandwiches and tenders four days a week at La Luz Coffee Hub on a quiet stretch of Griegos just east of 12th Street in the North Valley.
On a recent weekday lunch hour, two people were working the bright green truck as a steady trickle of customers rolled into the unpaved parking lot. The original Vegos trailer stood nearby. You’ll find it at the Rail Yards Market most Sundays.
Most customers picked up their food and left, but a few ate in a fenced-off patio with wooden picnic tables under canvas sunshades. Across the lot, a La Luz Coffee kiosk serves coffee drinks, lemonade and doughnuts. In recent weeks, flower and dessert vendors have set up at the site.
After you order, you’re given a small pager that vibrates when your food is ready. My order came out in about five minutes, enough time to wander over to La Luz and check out the offerings.
Vegos’ menu is devoted exclusively to sandwiches and tenders made from tofu coated in crushed cereal described as “crunchy num num bits.” The sandwiches and tenders are $10 alone or $13 with fries.
The sandwich is a marvel, a thick slab of tofu with a crispy, craggy coating clinging to it like armor. Eating it produces audible crunches that sound like footsteps in gravel. I know you’re not supposed to call it chicken, but it looks remarkably like white chicken meat and has a similar meatiness and mild flavor. The frying is superb, giving the coating crackle without any grease.
Like the vegan chicken, the fries, thin-cut and pale, were crisp and not at all greasy. They come with a rusty red dipping sauce made from mayonnaise and various spices.
The tenders also had the heft and mouth feel of chicken. The three pieces were tossed in a terrific Buffalo sauce that
dampened the crunch a bit but added a fiery tang that lingered on the tongue even after a dip in the accompanying ranch sauce.
The neighboring La Luz Coffee kiosk sources most of its coffee locally. The cold brew ($4) served with ice was smooth and sweet, with an assertive chocolate flavor. A good, if pricey, lemonade ($6), made with syrup and fresh-squeezed lemons, helped cool the heat from Vegos’ Buffalo sauce.
Vegos has the preparation of its vegan sandwiches and tenders down to a science. It’s good enough to make you forget that Popeyes and Chick-fil-A ever existed.