Review: A Tasting Tour of North County’s Vegan Pop-Up

Five years ago, Michelle May launched Seva Foods, a line of healthy, plant-based snacks that have sold well. But they might have sold even better if she had a way to directly market her freeze-dried ice cream and coconut jerky to fellow vegans.

When she couldn’t find a regular local vegan market or fair, she decided to start her own, the Vegan Food Popup. Since launching it in Encinitas in 2019 as a seasonal monthly event, it has grown to a now weekly event that alternates between the cities of Encinitas and Vista. The Popup has grown from 20 initial local vendors to nearly 50 food, product and service providers from across Southern California. Events regularly draw crowds in the hundreds.

The wait for fresh vegan donuts at the Donuttery food truck takes about 40 minutes at the Vegan Food Popup.

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“If you had told me four years ago that I would do something like this and it would be really successful, I wouldn’t have believed you,” May said.

From her perspective as an event producer, May said she hasn’t seen a major growth in the number of people going vegan these days. But she noticed that many of the people who visit the popup are non-vegans who want to learn more about ways to eat healthier and contribute to a more sustainable planet.

“The #1 factor in getting people to try vegan food is the taste factor,” May said. “If you can meet that expectation, people will be more open to it.”

So, as an omnivore and sustainability advocate, I decided to put May’s challenge to the test by visiting the Vegan Food Popup in Encinitas and Vista and tasting many of the stalls. One thing I’ve discovered on my visits is that vegan food doesn’t come cheap. Some items are twice as expensive as their non-vegan counterparts. But I also discovered a lot of delicious things that I can’t wait to buy again. Here are some of my favorites.

SeaCo Catch Fish Tacos

Vegan SeaCo Catch

SeaCo Catch vegan “fÿsh” taco at the Vegan Food Popup.

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

I’ve never found a fried fish taco I love as much as Rubio’s original fish taco, but San Diego’s year-old SeaCo Catch “fÿsh” taco came surprisingly close. How far? SeaCo Catch’s taco fÿsh won first place in Taco TKO Festival Judge’s Choice at last year’s San Diego Wine & Food Festival, the first time in nine years that a vegan option has won the top prize. What are they made of? Whole coconut. Tenderloin has the same mild flavor and firm, flaky texture as pollock or cod, but SeaCo Catch’s taco is a bit spicier and more expensive than Rubio’s original taco. A single fish taco is $7 and a two-taco plate is $13.

stone monkey

Stone Monkey's vegan bao buns at the Vegan Food Popup.

Stone Monkey’s vegan bao buns at the Vegan Food Popup.

(Vegan Food Ad)

This family-run vegan Chinese food stall was launched at Hillcrest Farmers Market in 2018. It usually has a queue as everything is cooked to order, but it’s worth it. Tried two dishes recommended by May. The gua bao rolls were fresh, rich in sauce, and had the greasy pork belly texture and flavor you would expect (two rolls for $6). The scallion noodles, a portion large enough for two, were smoky, squeaky and herbaceous ($10).

Tracy’s Real Foods Cookies

Mom's Everything Cookies from Tracy's Real Foods at the Vegan Food Popup.

Mom’s Everything Cookies from Tracy’s Real Foods at the Vegan Food Popup.

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Tracy Childs adopted a vegan diet in 1990 and has been a local plant nutrition consultant, cooking teacher and author ever since. When the pandemic upended her business, she and her husband, Steve Sarnoff, started making their own vegan packaged foods, including cheeses, crackers and cookies. Her cheese board cheddar and queso cheeses are tasty, but I loved her mom’s whole biscuits. These delicious and hearty cookies are made with oats, bananas, gluten-free oat flour, almond flour, nuts, organic chocolate chips, peanut butter, sugar date and more. It’s hard to believe they’re healthy because they taste so good. And they’re so filling that half a cookie can satisfy your cravings for a few hours. $12 for a 9 ounce bag or $20 for two.

Nomad Eats Classic Crunchwrap

The classic Crunchwrap from Nomad Eats at the Vegan Food Popup.

The classic Crunchwrap from Nomad Eats at the Vegan Food Popup.

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In 2012, Leucadia friends Jasmine Singh and Rebecca Newell launched Nomad Eats, selling their vegan nacho and cheese sauce and spreads. Today they are sold in Frazier Farms, Seaside Market and other specialty grocery stores. At farmers markets and at the Vegan Food Popup, they also sell their popular Crunchwraps, which look like grilled burritos shaped like a flying saucer. The Classic Crunchwrap is filled with shredded pulled pork-style jackfruit carnitas, seasoned black beans, guacamole, pico de gallo and lettuce and “cheeze” nacho sauce, which is made with potatoes, carrots , onions, cashews, coconut milk, jalapeños and other ingredients. $14.

Local Roots Kombucha Buddha Bowls

Buddha Bowl Vegan Curry at the Vegan Food Popup's new Vista location.

Buddha Bowl Vegan Curry at the Vegan Food Popup’s new Vista location.

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

On June 24, Encinitas Vegan Food Popup expanded to Vista with its first bi-monthly event in the parking lot of Local Roots Kombucha. Along with offering free parking and easy access to its kombucha tasting room and outdoor patio, Local Roots hosts a vegan food stand serving bowls, salads, dumplings, and noodle dishes. I tried the vegan yellow curry, which was tasty and a bit spicy. It was made with potatoes, onion, kale, sunflower seeds and other ingredients that were not described on the printed menu or known to the chefs. $15.

Cena Vegan Nachos and Burritos

Vegan Nachos from Cena Vegan at the Vegan Food Popup.

Vegan Nachos from Cena Vegan at the Vegan Food Popup.

(Vegan Food Ad)

Founded in Los Angeles in 2015 by a trio of vegans who missed the authentic flavors of Mexican street food, Cena now hosts pop-up markets and street fairs throughout Southern California. It specializes in creating plant-based proteins that mimic the tastes and textures of carne asada, carnitas, birria, pollo asada, al pastor, and barbacoa. The burritos are great, but so is the nacho boat, with tortilla chips, choice of protein, beans, guacamole, salsa, and sauce. $10 to $14.

Hello Pastry

Cookies and a croissant from Bonjour Patisserie at the Vegan Food Popup in Vista.

Cookies and a croissant from Bonjour Patisserie at the Vegan Food Popup in Vista.

(Pam Kragen/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Founded two years ago in Mission Valley by French pastry chef Romain Morés and Damian Boy, this French patisserie makes vegan and non-vegan pastries that the duo primarily sell to cafes in downtown San Diego. Morés’ vegan chocolate chip cookies are crispy and surprisingly buttery, and his croissants are just as fluffy as if the dough had been rolled out with hundreds of folded layers of Norman butter. I will go back for more. Cookies are $3 each. Croissants are $6.

When and where: Noon-4 p.m. every other Saturday (next event Saturday) at the San Dieguito Heritage Museum, 450 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas. 5-9 p.m. every other Friday (next event August 5) at Local Roots Boochyard, 1430 Vantage Court, Vista

Entrance and parking: Free. Events are dog and child friendly

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