The story of two vegan hotspots in El Monte: Plant Love Food and Sweet Veggie

window+in+a+gray+building+that+shows+the+cafes+sign

Erik Adams, Community News Reporter

The movement for plant-based living in Los Angeles has made it increasingly easier on vegans and vegetarians looking for a bite to eat.

That’s no different in the neighboring city of El Monte, which offers restaurants such as Taqueria Ixtaco and Xécora Gastronomía Urbana, with vegan Mexican staples; Plant Love Food, which is all-vegan; and Sweet Veggie, a vegetarian Chinese food restaurant.

The “San Gabriel Valley has such a rich and diverse food landscape, so I would love to see it become more vegan and veggie friendly,” said Liz Roswell, a Monrovia resident who has been vegan for four years and vegetarian for 17. “I think it is definitely moving in that direction with fully vegan places like Plant Love Food and Veggie Life [a vegan Vietnamese restaurant in South El Monte], and also places like Viet Huong who have always offered vegetarian and vegan options.” 

Michelle Perez, an Azusa resident and a vegetarian, said in an email that it’s been “exciting to see more vegetarian and vegan options pop up in the SGV throughout the years.” 

“I really enjoy eating at Plant Love Food in El Monte,” Perez said. “I love being able to enjoy delicious meatless tacos, especially as a Mexican American woman.”

Plant Love Food’s roots on a Mexican farm

Founded in 2018, Plant Love Food’s story starts with its owner, Jannet Gonzalez.

Gonzalez was born in the Mexican state of Guerrero and was raised in El Monte until age five. After that, her family moved back to Mexico to live on a farm.

Gonzalez’s experiences cooking with her mother and helping her family milk cows and care for crops were formative.

“She was the reason why I learned how to cook…She taught me how to cook when I was 7 or 8,” Gonzalez said. 

The cooking and farm work solidified her connection to the earth and Mexican culture.

“I felt so rich,” Gonzalez said about her years living on her family’s farm. “Even though we weren’t financially rich, I felt so rich.” 

Still, Gonzalez had fond memories of El Monte. “I would have dreams, literally, of me coming back to El Monte…” she said. “Because I knew I had family here, and I always knew I had roots here.” 

Becoming vegan in Pennsylvania

Years later, her parents divorced and Gonzalez and her mother settled in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

The relocation from Mexico to Pennsylvania shifted Gonzalez’s focus. “I became disconnected from mother earth, from nature, from animals,” she said. “I just basically became Americanized.” 

She became vegan about six years ago, which she said was tough.

Her family “all thought I was joking,” she said.

“Oh, meat’s delicious,” they would tell her.

“I know it’s good, I used to eat it for a reason,” she retorted.

“I can’t contribute to this. I don’t care how good it is,” Gonzalez recalled thinking. “I can’t justify eating [animals] just for my pleasure.”

Health and environmental issues also factored in.

But being vegan in Coatesville wasn’t easy. “Over there, people don’t even know what that is,” she said, laughing.

Moving to El Monte

Soon after, she moved to El Monte and almost immediately felt she made the right choice because of her family ties, the culture and, of course, the great food.

“I knew that if veganism is accepted anywhere, it’s LA,” she said.

But getting settled took a while. For about “two years, I couldn’t find anywhere to work,” she said. So, she became a rideshare driver.

That’s when she met Osmar Merida and started seeing him.

Selling food on the street is “literally how [Merida’s] family survived for many years,” Gonzalez said. He led her to think more seriously about an idea she had been floating: Opening a vegan Mexican restaurant in El Monte.

“Hey, we’re in LA. This is like the home of street tacos,” she recalled him saying.

They started small. Gonzalez’s started offering warm morning food options like oatmeal and atole to her rideshare passengers on their way to work.

Gonzalez described these early efforts of business as “guerrilla marketing” and they seemed to work.

In early 2019, Gonzalez’s Plant Love Food set up shop in, of all places, a carwash lobby on Peck Road.

“We always knew it was going to be temporary,” she said. The location was “just to get our foot in the door” and “see if we really want[ed] to take this full force into a real restaurant.”

After about 18 months at the carwash, Gonzalez and Merida moved the restaurant to its current location on Main Street, between Santa Anita Avenue and Tyler Avenue.

They bought the spot from a couple who ran Taqueria Azteca, which had been around for several decades.

The couple at Taqueria Azteca “put in work over 30 or 40 years, and we saw that, you know?” Gonzalez said. “And I’m sure they saw something in us, too. So I feel like we had some sort of connection.”

When the owners got in touch with Gonzalez, she felt the stakes were raised. “I felt like I had a way bigger responsibility,” Gonzalez said. Even though the business transaction is done, “I still want to make them proud, you know? I still want to make our community proud.”

Gonzalez said she thinks the pandemic has affected how people deal with their food choices: It “has helped a lot of people kind of wake up and take action with their health.” She said some of her older customers mention their doctor’s suggestions to not eat certain foods.

“Well, you’re in a perfect place,” she tells them.

Gonzalez said she’s proud of that and how far the restaurant has come: “I want to be that example for our people [so they say], ‘Hey, if she can do it, I can do it.’”

Sweet Veggie: A restaurant and educational center in one

Sweet Veggie is a vegetarian and mostly vegan buffet located near Valley Blvd and Santa Anita Ave. 

Sweet Veggie’s El Monte location opened in Oct. 2019, but the brand has been around since 2015, according to Kitty Chen, one of the buffet’s managers. 

The restaurant’s floor plan is expansive and includes a small market portion. The dining area has tight nooks for guests to sit at as they enjoy food from the main buffet room.

Chen said the group that Sweet Veggie affiliates with is called Great Benevolence, Inc., and those involved aim to promote a meat-free lifestyle to nearby communities, with love for animals and the environment making up the key part of the restaurant’s ethos. 

Sweet Veggie offers cooking classes for the restaurant’s surrounding community, as well as health seminars at the restaurant to further promote its message and mission. 

The events are “for people to understand why this [plant-based food] is so good for us,” Chen said. “If you want to learn how to cook, here’s where you can come.” 

The classes help to build a connection between the people and food. Once the heart is “more and more opened up to understand those concepts..you will take those actions…happily, because you’ll know you are doing the right thing for yourself and for others, too,” said Chen.

The pandemic has forced Sweet Veggie to make some changes. 

“We used to have classes in both languages, English and Mandarin, but due to Covid, we’re short on staff,” Chen said. So the restaurant is only offering lessons in Chinese at the moment.

Steamed buns, cold noodle dishes and several mock-meat variations are some of the popular Taiwanese options offered in Sweet Veggie’s buffet.

“Taiwan is paradise for a vegetarian,” Chen said.

Chen explains that Sweet Veggie’s potential to spread its message doesn’t stop with the buffet. She imagines someday starting a “Sweet Veggie Supermarket” or even a “Sweet Veggie Cafe.”

With Sweet Veggie, Chen aims to provide something for their community that transcends the mere sale of food. Chen said Sweet Veggie wants to take its message of benevolence and “spread the spirit to the people around us.”

Community News produces stories about under-covered neighborhoods and small cities on the Eastside and South Los Angeles. Please email feedback, corrections and story tips to [email protected]