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Discovering the vegan buffet at South Salt Lake's Mi Ranchito Grill is a bit like finding a pool of cool, clear water, after years in a desert.
Trays of tamales, enchiladas and fajitas sit along side chile rellenos, taquitos and more than two dozen other items prepared for a meat-and-dairy-free lifestyle.
"It's nice to have so many options," Jason Tackett said last week on his first trip to the buffet.
Yes, variety is one of the reasons the buffet has become a popular weekly dining event in Salt Lake. More than 200 vegans, vegetarians and a few adventurous carnivores typically line up for the buffet every Friday from 5 to 10 p.m.
"It's Mexican with a twist," said Javier Armenta, who co-owns the 35-year-old restaurant with his wife Sandra. The all-you-can eat buffet, which includes drinks like soy horchata, is $13.99 for adults and $5.99 to $9.99 for children depending on their ages. (See box for details.)
Vegan buffets can be found in many urban cities in the U.S. and around the globe. But many say Mi Ranchito's offering is a first for the Salt Lake City area. "A Mexican place with a vegan buffet is really hard to find," said diner Seyyed Sharifi.
With a traditional Tex Mex menu of rice, beans and cheese enchiladas, Mi Ranchito, at 3600 S. State St., has long been a favorite place for vegetarians to dine, said Armenta. But as many of those customers turned to a vegan lifestyle, they would ask for special preparations "and we wanted to cater to their needs."
Not sure where to begin, a friend introduced Armenta to Utah vegan Victor Ivan Barragan the male winner of PETA's Sexiest Vegan Next Door contest in 2015.
Barragan, who works as a fire performer and dancer, has been vegan for five years and has become a local advocate for the lifestyle. He was happy to show Armenta how to turn traditional Mexican specialties into vegan fare.
"People think it's super complicated," said the 28-year-old West Valley resident, who now works as a part-time consultant at Mi Ranchito. "But it's really just about substitutions." Instead of beef, chicken and pork, the restaurant uses wheat-based seitan, mock "chik'n" and soy-based products, like tofu. The taste of these vegan products has improved in recent years and when properly prepared, their texture is similar to the animal proteins that people are used to eating, he said.
That makes it easy to be vegan and have your favorites, too.
"When I went vegan I didn't want to eat the same things over and over," Barragan said. "And I didn't want to give up the things I liked."
That included many of the Mexican specialties enjoyed by his family, which immigrated to the U.S. from the Baja California coastal city of Ensenada when Barragan was 5.
At Mi Ranchito, Barragan initially helped the Armenta family develop a special vegan menu that is available daily. It includes more than a dozen items, including vegetable stuffed tamales; pozole made with vegetable broth and soy curls; grilled quesadillas with mock cheese; and street tacos with a choice of grilled mushrooms, seitan or other meat-free options.
Barragan is most proud of the pastel azteca, a Mexican-style lasagna from his mother's hometown made with stacked corn tortillas, enchilada sauce, soy rizo (think vegan chorizo sausage) and black beans. It costs $14.99 and is large enough to feed a family of four.
"It's one of those recipes that is not commonly seen in Mexican restaurants," said Barragan. "But I really wanted it to be on the menu."
After the vegan menu was complete, a weekly buffet was the natural next step as Mi Ranchito already offers a traditional Mexican buffet on Saturday and Sunday nights. Mi Ranchito also has restaurants in Orem and American Fork, but, so far, the South Salt Lake location is the only one offering the vegan menu.
Besides the traditional Mexican fare, the buffet is heavy with fresh fruits, salads and vegetables such as yams, deep-fried plantains, sautéed mushrooms and nopales. There also are corn chips and tortillas (made with vegetable oil) for build-your-own tacos and nachos, said Barragan.
Since the vegan buffet launched about three months ago, Ethan Lake has been at least five times. While most restaurant buffets usually provide few options for vegans, Mi Ranchito's "has amazing variety," that changes every week, he said. "It's traditional Mexican, with yams and fried plantains, not just cheese on everything."
Not surprisingly, it's also appealing to meat-eaters like Michael Thomas, who tagged along with his two vegan friends. "It reminds me of food I had in Mexico City; there was some meat but mostly fruits, vegetables, beans. It feels authentic."
Of course, just like any buffet, diners should use some restraint when going back for seconds, or thirds, said diner Dana Wilson. "The selection is so huge," he said, "you have to pace yourself."
Mexican Vegan Buffet
Where • Mi Ranchito Grill, 3600 S. State, South Salt Lake; 801-263-7707
When • Fridays, 5 to 10 p.m.
Price • $13.99 adults; $9.99 ages 10-11; $7.99 ages 7-9; and $5.99 ages 2-6.
More • A vegan menu is also available during regular hours, Monday-Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Online • miranchitogrill2.com