Now open: Nissi VegMex bills itself as Austin's only all-vegan Mexican restaurant
Sergio Tamez's cousin got the last laugh.
Tamez eye-rolled his cousin about a decade ago at a family gathering. Tamez was ladling some salsa onto his chicken tacos and the spoon brushed up against the bird. His vegan cousin was not pleased.
After hearing out his cousin about his vegan lifestyle, the Monterrey-born Tamez decided to do some research on his own. Raised in a household where eggs and chorizo were served at breakfast, chicken Milanesa was a lunchtime staple and beef founds it way to the table at most dinners, the idea of switching to a vegan diet seemed extreme.
A couple of years passed after that accidental brush of the spoon. The more documentaries he saw and the more he read about the impact an animal-based diet had on his health and that of the planet (coupled with what he learned about animal welfare), the Dallas-raised Tamez decided that he was ready to go vegan.
Though his time in the restaurant industry only included a six-month stint at a Cheddar's in the Dallas area, Tamez and his wife, Karen, decided to open vegan Mexican trailer Nissi VegMex Vegan Mexican Cuisine in 2018 in East Austin.
That trailer is temporarily closed, as Tamez has turned his focus to a brick-and-mortar North Austin taqueria. Tamez, a former inspector for the Texas Department of Transportation, calls it the only all-vegan Mexican restaurant in the city.
Tamez spent much of the first years of his new life as a vegan eating copious amounts of legumes, and he wasn't satisfied with the tofu and jackfruit versions of tacos he had tried. He missed the flavors and textures of his youth. He set about learning how to manufacture soy to take on the texture and flavor of the foods that filled street tacos.
Nissi VegMex serves thin soy ribbons that replicate fajita meat; crumbled picadillo stewed with potatoes; and twirls of achiote-brightened veg-meat that strikes flavor notes reminiscent of porky pastor.
The six different styles of soy protein (there's also "cheek," chicharron and carne asada) come in tacos and burritos, or they can be ordered as plates. He uses plant-based oil to fatten the onion-studded beans. Salsas obviously don't have much use for animal product, and the dusky chipotle, cooling tomatillo and aggressive habanero can stand up with the salsas found at some of Austin's top taquerias.
Tamez speculates that about 85% of the customers at the restaurant he opened in April in the former Emerald Tavern Games and Cafe space maintain a vegan diet, while others come for health or religious reasons.
"They still want a delicious form of authentic food," says Tamez, adding that he's happy to provide the alternative for his community.
Now, Tamez is the one who meets occasional skepticism from friends and family.
"Oh, it's definitely payback," Tamez says with a smile.