Five years ago, Michelle May started Seva Foods, a line of healthy, plant-based snacks that sold well. But they could have sold even better if she had a way to directly market her freeze-dried ice cream and coconut jerky to her fellow vegans.
When she couldn’t find a regularly occurring local vegan market or fair, she decided to create her own, the Vegan Food Popup. Since she launched it in Encinitas in 2019 as a seasonal monthly event it has grown into a now-weekly event that alternates between the cities of Encinitas and Vista. The Popup has grown from an initial 20 local vendors to nearly 50 food, product and service vendors from all over Southern California. The events regularly draw crowds in the hundreds.
“If you told me four years ago I would be doing something like this and it would be really successful, I wouldn’t have believed you,” May said.
From her vantage point as an event producer, May said she hasn’t observed a major growth in the number of people who are becoming vegan these days. But she has noticed that many of the people who visit the popup are non-vegans who are interested in learning more about ways to eat healthier and contribute to a more sustainable planet.
“The No. 1 factor in getting people to try vegan food is the taste factor,” May said. “If you can meet that expectation, then 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 both Encinitas and Vista and tasted my way through many of the booths. One thing I discovered on my visits was that vegan food isn’t cheap. Some items are twice as expensive as their non-vegan counterparts. But I also discovered many yummy things I’m eager to buy again. Here are some of my favorites.
SeaCo Catch fÿsh tacos
I’ve never found a batter-fried fish taco that I love as much as Rubio’s Original fish taco, but San Diego’s year-old SeaCo Catch “fÿsh” taco has come surprisingly close. How close? SeaCo Catch’s fÿsh taco won first-place judge’s choice at the Taco TKO Festival at last year’s San Diego Wine & Food Festival, the first time in nine years a vegan option has won the top prize. What are they made of? SeaCo won’t say, other than a proprietary blend of six legumes, including peas, lentils, soy and fava beans. The fÿsh fillet has the same mild flavor and firm, flaky texture of pollock or cod, but SeaCo Catch’s taco is a bit spicier and pricier than the Rubio’s original taco. A single fÿsh taco is $7 and two-taco plate is $13.
This family-run vegan Chinese food booth was launched at the Hillcrest Farmers Market in 2018. It usually has a line because everything is prepared to order, but it’s the worth the wait. I tried two dishes that May recommended. The gua bao buns were fresh, richly sauced and had the fatty pork belly texture and flavor you expect (two buns for $6). The scallion noodles, a portion big enough for two, was smoky, saucy and herbacious ($10).
Tracy’s Real Foods cookies
Tracy Childs adopted a vegan diet in 1990 and has been a local plant-based nutrition consultant, cooking teacher and author ever since. When the pandemic upended her business, she and her husband, Steve Sarnoff, began making their own vegan packaged foods, including cheeses, crackers and cookies. Her cheeseboard cheddar and queso cheeses are tasty, but I loved her Mom’s Everything Cookies. These delicious and substantial cookies are made with oats, bananas, gluten-free oat flour, almond flour, nuts, organic chocolate chips, peanut butter, date sugar and more. It’s hard to believe they’re healthy because they’re so good. And they’re so filling, a half-cookie can satisfy your food cravings for a couple of hours. $16 for a 9-ounce bag.
Nomad Eats Classic Crunchwrap
In 2012, Leucadia friends Jasmine Singh and Rebecca Newell started Nomad Eats, selling their jarred vegan nacho “cheeze” sauce and spreads. Today they’re sold in Frazier Farms, Seaside Market and other specialty grocers. At farmers markets and the Vegan Food Popup, they also sell their popular Crunchwraps, which are like grilled, flying saucer-shaped burritos. The Classic Crunchwrap is filled with pulled pork-style shredded jackfruit carnitas, seasoned black beans, guacamole, pico de gallo and lettuce and the nacho “cheeze” sauce, which is made with potatoes, carrots, onions, cashews, coconut milk, jalapeños and other ingredients. $14.
Local Roots Kombucha Buddha Bowls
On June 24, Encinitas Vegan Food Popup expanded to Vista with its first bi-monthly event in the parking lot at Local Roots Kombucha. Besides offering free parking, and easy access to its kombucha tasting room and its outdoor dining patio, Local Roots is hosting a vegan food booth 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 weren’t described in the printed menu or known to the chefs. $15.
Cena Vegan nachos and burritos
Founded in Los Angeles in 2015 by a trio of vegans who missed the authentic flavors of Mexican street food, Cena now does pop-up markets and street fairs all over Southern California. It specializes in creating vegetable 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-$14.
Founded two years ago in Mission Valley by French-raised pastry chef Romain Morés and Damian Boy, this French patisserie makes both vegan and non-vegan pastries that the duo sell mostly to coffeehouses in downtown San Diego. Morés’ vegan chocolate chip cookies are crisp and surprisingly buttery, and his croissants are just as feather-light as if the dough had been laminated with hundreds of folded layers of Normandy butter. I’ll go back for more. Cookies are $3 each. Croissants are $6.
When and where: Noon to 4 p.m. every other Saturday (next event Saturday) at San Dieguito Heritage Museum, 450 Quail Gardens Drive, Encinitas. 5 to 9 p.m. every other Friday (next event Aug. 5) at Local Roots Boochyard, 1430 Vantage Court, Vista
Admission and parking: Free. Events are dog- and child-friendly