Just a year after launching their first restaurant in River North, the owners of Penelope’s Vegan Taqueria are opening a second location in Andersonville.
The new restaurant should open on March 14 at 5204 N. Clark Street. Owner and chef Juan Lisandro Ramirez operated as a pop-up for four years before opening at 230 W. Chicago Avenue In 2022 in River North. His taqueria serves up plant-based Mexican street food from a variety of tacos made of cauliflower, pulled oats, and soy al pastor to a current customer favorite the pambazo, a sandwich where the bread is dipped in guajillo sauce and then filled with potatoes, onions, cilantro, cheese, avocado and your choice of soy chorizo or asada.
“The first Penelopes, I feel it was like an experiment that worked. We know the menu, the vibe, the music, everything,” Ramirez says. “So this other location is something that is a little more advanced.”
The menu is constantly developing as chef Ramirez experiments to recreate beloved Mexican dishes from his childhood using vegan ingredients. Just a few months ago patrons couldn’t get enough of the mushroom quesabirria served with a vegetable dipping broth.
“Every day we try to come up with something new,” Ramirez adds. “The flavors are simple like comino, ajo, tomatoes, chile de arbol. Those ingredients, if you know how to use them properly, they taste really good.”
Still, the process isn’t a simple one-for-one replacement when removing meat products. “We have the ingredients, but if you replace it with soy or pulled oats it tastes totally different. It’s like trial and error,” adds Ramirez. Before officially debuting any item on the menu, he will serve a new dish to ten different people as a final test. “If they all like it, that means we got something good.”
Ramirez started working in restaurants at 22, but without any formal education, he learned his way around the kitchen from the other chefs on the line. Typically working two jobs at any time, he immersed himself into new realms of cuisine and explored his curiosity under the guidance of his mentors.
“I’m coming from a world where I just knew cilantro and jalapeños and all that and now I”m going to a world where, ‘Oh like now, basil! What is basil? What is that?’ Everything was very interesting to me.”
When it came time to build something of his own, Ramirez brought 15 years of experience in various dining rooms. He launched Vegan Street Food Chicago as a pop-up in 2018 and toured the city at different vegan markets with his tacos and elotes. As Ramirez tells it, the whole enterprise almost ended before it even started. It was the morning of their first pop-up and Ramirez and his wife Paloma were loading up their truck with all the food he had prepared earlier. The event ran from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and he still had his day job to get to at 2 p.m. It was snowing and as his tires spun, the car got stuck in the slush. The two thought, “let’s go home and forget about this,” but instead pushed through and eventually made it to the event. Within two hours they had completely sold out.
“I realized I had something valuable. There are people like me that struggle and I have a good product that people want,” Ramirez says. “That motivated me to say, ‘I’m here right now in this industry where we serve meat, but soon I’m leaving.”
The two continued to work their day jobs while holding weekend pop-ups and gaining a loyal following as they gradually expanded their menu. In 2021 they began looking at restaurant leases, but everything was out of their price range until a friend connected them with a property owner whose space had remained vacant for four years in River North. They poured their life savings into properly building out the space; everything needed to be replaced. But the landlord gave them the keys and told them they could do whatever they wanted.
Vegan taquerias are finding their niches in Chicago, all taking different approaches. Don Bucio’s opened earlier this month in Logan Square. The menu at Penelope’s reflects Ramirez’s decision to go meat-free in his mid-20s. It was around this time he started questioning where his food came from and decided to give meat up. Continuing to work in kitchens with non-plant-based menus proved to be challenging though.
“Imagine working at restaurants where they have meat and you have to taste the food. It was very difficult trying to work in that environment,” Ramirez says.
The couple worked hard developing a playlist with songs inspired by Mexico City: Spanish pop, Spanish rock, and a mix of Latin top hits. While in Miami, a Mexican muralist named Senkoe impressed them. His work has even appeared in a popular Xbox racing video game: “We right away knew we wanted him to come to Chicago to do our murals,” says Paloma Ramirez.
In River North, Senkoe painted a mural with three hummingbirds that represent the Ramirez family and good luck, with the two larger birds protecting the baby. A mural in Andersonville will also feature birds.
Before opening in River North, the last decision needed was the name. With the idea of possible expansion of the business in the future, Vegan Street Food Chicago felt more like the name of a corporation than this specific venture. Juanito’s Vegan Taqueria was also in the mix, but then something else sparked.
“We decided to have Vegan Street Food as the mom and dad and then Penelope is like the daughter, the name of my daughter,” says Ramirez.
Ramirez dreams to grow the business beyond Penelope’s. With Vegan Street Food Chicago as the brand, he hopes to one day open up other ventures specializing in items like tortas or paletas so they can bring their flavors to other parts of the city.
Penelope’s Vegan Taqueria, 5204 N. Clark Street, opens Tuesday, March 14 as BYOB.