Creative vegan tacos are turning up on more Asheville menus

CACTUS CUISINE: The most popular vegan dish at Zia Taqueria, which offers a special plant-based menu every Tuesday, is a taco made with nopales, or prickly pear cactus, pictured left. Other vegan taco varieties at Zia include jackfruit and portabello, also pictured. Photo courtesy of Zia Taqueria

Taco Tuesdays are great, but who wouldn’t want tacos on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays — or any other day that ends in “y”?

Tacos are a foodie favorite, and these iconic foldable mini-meals seem to be growing increasingly popular across Western North Carolina. From Polanco to Green Sage Café, a variety of eateries are either adding to or expanding their taco offerings, including a range of plant-based, veggie-strong choices featuring unique combinations and exotic ingredients.

At Tacos and Taps, a North Asheville drive-through taqueria from the owners of Asheville Brewing Co., the most popular vegan option is the Diablo Verde. It starts with No Evil Foods plant-based protein cooked with chilis, spices and fresh lime juice, then simmered in ABC’s Rocket Girl Lager. It’s finished off with pickled vegetables, roasted red pepper Baja sauce and fresh cilantro. “As a carnivore myself and being somewhat new to the vegan food game, I asked for tons of help and suggestions from vegan coworkers and friends of mine,” says executive chef Nick Izzo of the creation process. “Hours upon hours of research went into our vegan recipes.”

The spot’s other non-meat taco options include one with grilled plantain, black beans, pico de gallo and chipotle salsa on a corn tortilla, and one with Smiling Hara tempeh tossed in barbecue sauce with pineapple pico de gallo, jicama and fresh cilantro on a flour tortilla.

TAPPING INTO VEGGIES: The menu at Tacos and Taps features a number of vegan tacos, including plantain and barbecued tempeh varieties. Photo courtesy of Tacos and Taps

“Hundreds of tacos and burritos tested and tasted led us to our current vegan selection, which, we are happy to boast, is one of the largest of any taco shop in town,” says Izzo.

Plenty of other Asheville restaurants are getting creative with meatless tacos, too. Known for healthy and largely organic eats, Green Sage Cafe’s three locations — soon to be four, once a planned Merrimon Avenue space is up and running — have three varieties of vegan tacos. The lineup includes the Avo No Pescado taco with chickpea Smiling Hara Hempeh, cabbage, jalapeño tartar sauce, cilantro and tomato avocado salsa; the Seoul Tako taco with chickpea hempeh, spicy mayonnaise, kimchi, scallions, sesame seeds, cucumbers, bean sprouts and spicy Korean sauce; and the hempe bánh mì taco with chickpea hempe, pickled vegetables and peppers, spicy mayonnaise, mint and cucumbers.

At TacoBilly in West Asheville, the Support Group taco offers a singular mix of cumin, sweet potatoes, pecan and black bean hummus, roasted pepitas, avocado, spinach and coconut crema, all served on a plantain tortilla. And at Mamacita’s Taco Temple on Charlotte Street, plant-based eaters can opt for the avocado taco with sweet potato, baby kale, black beans and pistachio crema.

Polanco, downtown’s artisanal Mexican eatery, offers an entire menu of vegan options, from appetizers to soups and salads to entrées, including six tacos featuring combinations such as poblano peppers with garlic, vegan cream and corn; fried cauliflower with pico de gallo and chipotle aioli; and No Evil Foods “chicken” with a 32-ingredient, house-made mole sauce.

Grey Eagle Taqueria, the dining destination inside the River Arts District’s popular music venue, also features a cauliflower taco — this one includes roasted cauliflower mixed with avocado, purple cabbage and mojo de ajo. Among its four meat-free taco options, it does one with house-made lentil chorizo sausage and another with Smiling Hara tempeh and mojo de ajo.

So why are so many restaurants suddenly opting into vegan tacos?

Robert Tipsword of Zia Taqueria — which offers a vegan night every Tuesday with an extensive plant-based menu — says the eatery expanded its options so everyone would feel welcome.

Zia stands out in Asheville for its use of nopales, or prickly pear cactus, as the key ingredient in a taco that Tipsword says has become the restaurant’s most popular vegan dish. It features tempura-fried or grilled nopales topped with mixed greens, roasted corn, pickled onions, avocado, vegan queso fresco and a creamy, sweet chipotle sauce, all served on a flour tortilla.

“Personally, prickly pear cactus is something I love to eat for its unique flavor and health benefits,” says Tipsword. “I have eaten it so many times pickled or on salads, and I wanted to see if we could take it one step farther, so we developed the nopales taco. We love that it fits the needs of the public and still suits our Southwestern concept.”

Zia also offers a portobello vegan taco with black bean purée, marinated and grilled portobello mushrooms, avocado, cilantro and cashew crema, as well as the newly introduced adobo jackfruit taco with red Hatch chiles and other spices topped with purple cabbage, cashew crema and fresh pineapple on a corn or flour tortilla.

Coming up with the recipes was a collaborative effort, Tipsword says. “We have many vegans within our own organization, and we collaborate together,” he explains. “We also have friends on the West Coast and talk with them about what they are doing and seeing. Lastly, our regular customers have been amazing with their feedback in helping us obtain our goals.”

White Duck Taco Shop gives vegan eaters a bit of latitude. At its three Asheville locations, seared jerk jackfruit can be subbed out in almost any taco, meaning that six or seven options on the regular menu can be easily veganized. The world’s largest tree fruit, jackfruit has become an increasingly popular meat substitute thanks to its texture, which is similar to pulled pork.

“We decided, due to overwhelming requests from our vegan customer base, to add a good quality vegan item that could be interchangeable with some of our current tacos, so those who choose the vegan diet could enjoy our delicious selections without having to special order a taco,” says co-owner Laura Reuss. The jerk chicken taco, for example, can become the jerk jackfruit taco, complete with seared jerk jackfruit with jerk sauce and jerk slaw.

“All of our tacos are combinations of fresh ethnic flavors from around the world,” she adds. “We like to include a cold salad-type of topping with a delicious sauce, and then we sear the jackfruit on the grill to be able to deepen the flavor into the vegan protein.”

Although this list is vast, it’s by no means exhaustive — most of Asheville’s taco shops and Mexican-inspired eateries now offer plant-based options. “Asheville has such a tremendous vegan culture,” Izzo observes. “Being able to use local products from companies like No Evil Foods and Smiling Hara Tempeh helps us add to that eclectic following. We wanted to show people that it was easy, fun and, above all, really tasty to do vegan food fast.”

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