No pork needed in this carnitas torta. Photo by Cynthia Rebolledo

In 2018, David Aguilar and his girlfriend, Julia Chavez, began to host vegan pop-up on Sundays in the parking lot of his parent’s restaurant, El Zamorano in SanTana. Vegan by El Zamorano immediately drew in gabachos and Mexicans alike by slinging traditional taquería “meats” on tortillas hechas a mano. 

They started with just meat-free asada, al pastor, and chorizo tacos, before expanding to burritos and even quesadillas filled with Aguilar’s homemade vegan mozzarella cheese, which he dubbed My Cheese.

Aguilar and Chavez soon became main players in OC’s Vegan-Mex scene, which has reimagined the possibilities of plant-based food in Southern California and beyond. T

Now, Aguilar and Chavez have opened their first brick-and-mortar in Costa Mesa. Long in the planning, it opened in June just weeks after restaurants opened again due to California’s coronavirus-mandated closure but just as the state banned in-person dining. 

“The week of our soft opening, we thought to ourselves, ‘We have to find a way to get people in here,”’ Chavez said. “You hear about all these small businesses struggling to keep their doors open. We were scared but then the first day came around and we were overwhelmingly busy.” 

So busy that they ran out of food two hours before closing. And the momentum hasn’t slowed down. 

Vegan by El Zamorano’s small red dining room hasn’t yet opened up to the public but there’s plenty of seating and fresh air on their colorful patio, from where you can hear the restaurant’s phone constantly ring.

Not only do they continue to sell their signature tacos, but there’s now an expanded menu with new dishes like asada fries and chile rellenos. House-made agua frescas like sandia, horchata, and jamaica tastily wash down a tray of nachos. Aguilar also sells his creamy, melty homemade cashew cheese creamy and melty in tubs or blocks for folks to take home.

But what you should order here is the torta de carnitas. Zamorano uses teleras from Oli’s Bakery in SanTana to envelop both crisp and succulent “carnitas.” Joined with refried beans, sliced tomatoes, onion, shredded lettuce and a generous layer of avocado, it  delivers a meat-like savoriness (hint: king oyster mushroom is the secret here). 

Come hungry: after smashing this hefty torta, another meal isn’t necessary for a day or three.

Vegan by El Zamorano 3011 Harbor Blvd., #A, Costa Mesa, (657) 247-5200. Instagram: @veganbyelzamorano