During a brief excursion to San Francisco, I had the pleasure of trying Gracias Madre, a highly acclaimed vegan Mexican restaurant. I’ve been vegan for almost three years, and let me tell you, after awhile you really start to miss some of the stuff you used to consume. Specifically, those foods of the creamy, fat-laden, savory variety. Gracias Madre, at $14 a plate, sated my cravings, yet it still reeked of a shallow aesthetic. The food wasn’t bad, but it left the overall impression that it strived for Instagram-worthy appeal rather than taste.
Venturing back to Sacramento, my desire for authentic vegan Mexican food became unsettling. I longed to share the content feeling my friends had when they purchased a fresh carne asada taco off the streets of downtown. I wanted to relish in the beauty of looking inside my burrito to find my tortilla stuffed with more than mere iceberg lettuce and pico de gallo. I wanted the messy, homestyle Mexican cooking that you would find at someone’s grandma’s house, similar to what I find when I visit family in San Diego or Los Angeles.
Thanks to my current employer, a tech company whose mission is to connect people to local businesses, I was able to scour Sacramento and its neighboring areas in desperate search for what my taste buds lacked. Situated on the corner of Marconi Avenue and Fair Oaks Boulevard in Carmichael, El Papagayo (The Parrot) sits tucked away, easy to miss if you aren’t paying close attention. The sign outside the door, while faded and outdated, is telling of the success the restaurant has had over the years. Outside, there are a couple tables underneath a patio with views of the Arco gas station adjacent to the parking lot. This unintentionally facilitates numerous groups of squatters. To an external eye, one may at first be wary of the tattered building, a harsh contrast to the newly built Milagro Centre around the corner. It’s gritty, but it’s authentic, and the food definitely matches that.
Inside El Papagayo, a towering water fountain spills over the sides into the large space, which is equipped with hand-carved dining tables from Mexico, numerous art prints and a full bar, the most recent addition to the restaurant. The space is vibrant and full of energy, similar to owners Rosalinda Aceves—who employees say is “the hardest working woman you’ll ever meet”—and her husband and chef Horacio. The Aceves team brought El Papagayo into the Sacramento area from Mexico in 2000, 18 years ago. Today, with the help of their two sons, Alex and Brandon, the family owned and operated restaurant serves Sacramento’s diverse and unique culture every Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Which is why, after 18 years, El Papagayo has carnivores, vegetarians and vegans coming from all around Sacramento (and even out-of-state) to dine-in and cash out on affordable, delicious and authentic Mexican food.
It seems since the beginning of time, specifically at restaurants, waiters and chefs alike shared the same, monotonous tale of their limited meatless options. If you were vegan and found something half-way resembling your stigmatized “rabbit food” it would 1) Taste like rabbit food; or 2) Contain cheese. Always. All. Ways. El Papagayo is a treasure chest for vegans and vegetarians everywhere, because the restaurant compiled a completely separate menu for us not-so-carnivorous eaters. To find an establishment that has … wait for it … something the human race calls “options,” is truly radical. A rebellious notion in meat-loving America.
One of my favorite items at El Papagayo is their super burrito, humongous, mouth-watering medley of rice, beans, vegan cheese, vegan sour cream, lettuce and guacamole served on a red plastic plate. It’s absolutely wonderful. Priced at $8.49, it could feed two, if it wasn’t so addictive. Topped with a generous amount of avocado salsa from their equally addictive chips and salsa bar, this is one of the best things I’ve eaten. It not only meets the demands of tricky (and sometimes picky) plant-based eaters, it exceeds it.
The vegan menu options range between $8.49 and $12.99, and can be purchased al la carte or as a combo meal, which comes with a side of beans, rice and guacamole. Plus, there are multiple fillings to personalize your order of, say, chimichangas. The fillings are the true game-changer.
Any al la carte item can be ordered with choice of filling, which includes, but is not limited to, fried tofu, soy chorizo, chile colorado (soy, potatoes and tofu cooked into the sauce), chile verde (a rich blend of cactus, mushroom and onions cooked into the sauce), potatoes, chayote squash, mushroom ranchero (a mix of mushroom, onions, tomatoes and bell peppers) and my personal favorite, nopales (cactus). El Papagayo has had this menu for almost 10 years, long before Instagram bloggers and food flat-lays graced our generation on a well-lit, glossy platter. Their menu implements a variety of creative, cultural ingredients into their dishes that I have yet to find elsewhere. It’s refreshing.
El Papagayo also has quirky and noteworthy vegan takes on drinks. Recently, the restaurant released a vegan oyster mushroom cocktail, a seafood-less version of one of their most popular drinks. The 16-ounce goblet contains oyster mushrooms, tomato, onion, cilantro and ketchup, garnished with bay leaves, fresh avocado and a cucumber.
Last but not least, El Papagayo features an extravagant vegano pie de chocolate, a chocolate vegan pie made from silken tofu. This pie tastes like a creamy, rich slice of heaven. Sliced strawberries and raspberry compote rest on top, creating presentation that corresponds to both appeal and taste. It’s the perfect end to an already-satisfying meal, one that I highly recommend.
As a Gen-Z Millenial, I can attest that I too appreciate beautiful food presentation. Gourmet, picture-worthy food is wonderful, but there’s a time and place for overpriced pairings attached to fun geo-tags. For me, honest, passionate craft in the kitchen topped with delicious ingredients fill the void of tasty, plant-based expectation. El Papagayo’s vegan menu is no different, as a decade in the making created a worthy product you can taste. What El Papagayo created 10 years ago as an alternative food option is now a trendy dietary choice. The difference, however, is that El Papagayo creates for the sake of food, and only that. In an instantaneous world, regardless of social media, digital branding or location tactics, good food sells. Picture that.
El Papagayo is located at 5804 Marconi Ave., Carmichael. They are open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. – 9 p.m., and are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Visit Elpapagayo916.com for more information, or call them at (916) 487-7742.
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 22 – 23 of issue #267 (June 4 – 18, 2018)**