When Juan David Umaña, owner of the vegan food truck Vengan Pa’Ka, had the opportunity to move to Madison from the west coast last fall, he said it was an easy decision. “I’ve always loved Madison,” says Umaña. “So why not bring some plant-based foods to the Dairy State?” Vengan Pa’ka makes its debut earlier this month at Doundrins Distilling and the Madison Summer Vegan Pop-up Market, focusing on global street food with a local twist. “[We] Showcase different cultures and their cuisine through products that are locally available instead of trying to source everything so that it is ideally what you would see in Thailand or South America, ”says Umaña. “We work hand in hand [these] local products. “
Originally from Colombia, Umaña moved his family to the United States at the age of 8 and moved to the East Coast before ending up in Champagne, Illinois, where he attended school and worked in the hospitality industry. After graduating from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a degree in psychology, Umaña decided to study the food industry with a focus on sustainability, locality, organic, he says. “That inspired me.”
Umaña moved from Illinois to Denver, Colorado, where he worked at Kitchen, a restaurant that focused on seasonality and ethical sourcing. “That’s when my idea started to sparkle,” says Umaña. “I love this concept of conscious eating and the quality of the food is on display. And you’re working with local farmers and suppliers to do some amazing things. ”It was in Denver that Umaña and his partner Allie also adopted a plant-based diet.
They next moved to Eugene, Oregon, where Umaña continued to work in the food industry in places that focused on sustainability and seasonality, but “I didn’t work for people who were vegetarian or plant-based,” he says. “I’ve been playing with a food truck for a few years, but I wasn’t sure which concept… And then I realized, OK, it must be veganism. All those restaurants where the quality of the ingredients was such an important aspect for the model, however [they were] still meat centered. I wanted to bring that with me, but with plant-based high-end foods that, even as omnivores, enjoy what we produce because it is tailored to the palate. “
Umaña launched Vengan Pa’ka – the name, an allusion to Umaña’s Latin and Colombian roots, is “a welcome call, ‘yes, come over, vengan paka'”, he says – in winter 2017. start a food truck “, says Umaña. “Everyone said, ‘It will rain all the time,’ we said, ‘This is great, it will allow us to get our feet on the ground, expand our wings and experiment with what we want to do.'”
The following summer, Vengan Pa’ka won two awards at a major food truck event, including the most creative. They made everything from sauces to falafel in-house. Umaña loved working with the farmers and producers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley area. “We were blessed,” he says.
Next they moved to the Bay Area, California, where the truck was put on hold. Umaña started working at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ farm-to-table restaurant in Berkeley. “It’s very nice,” says Umaña. “The energy there – everyone is committed to this idea of bio, sustainability, ethics and biodynamics.” During his work at Chez Panisse Umaña felt confirmed in his convictions that led him to create Vengan Pa’ka. “I saw what I had dreamed of. You can start with a dream and stick with it, and it can manifest and shape into something that people love, ”he says. And then the pandemic struck, throwing everything up in the air.
When Allie was offered a job in Madison last fall, they decided to return to the Midwest to be closer to the family. Umaña was also excited to bring his vision (and food truck) to Wisconsin. “It was nice to see the infrastructure that is already in place in Oregon and California, but not needed as it is here,” he says. “I think there is a great desire and urge to go more in that direction of organic and local sourcing, but it’s not quite there compared to the west coast so it now seems like the perfect move.”
Umaña spent the winter months socializing with local producers, including Tortilleria Zepeda, which makes a 7.5-inch tortilla for Vengan Pa’ka’s Birria, one of the items on the rotating menu. Umaña says that Birria is traditionally a tomato-based pork stew. The interpretation of Vengan Pa’ka is garnished with onions and coriander and served with the tortilla for dipping, and features lion’s mane and hawk-wing mushrooms instead of meat. Umaña is passionate about tortillas and the ethics of Tortilleria Zepeda. “People think, ‘Oh, plant-based, as long as we all eat plants, that’s fine,’ but I’m also very focused on footprint, packaging and reducing plastic as much as possible,” says Umaña. “[Tortilleria Zepeda] is also strongly focused on it. “
Umaña also works with Origin Breads, which uses local organic flour to make sunflower buns for the truck’s sandwiches. An upcoming Hoagie-style sandwich on the menu features blue oyster mushrooms, kale, and Vengan Pakas Pepper Jane ‘Cheese,’ a riff on Pepper Jack made from almond milk, potatoes, and peppers.
Right now, Vengan Pa’ka is showing up in a variety of locations including a return trip to Doundrins Distilling on Thursday July 1st and a stop at the Delta Beer Lab and Saturday July 3rd (there will be a regular gig on Saturdays in the Delta) . The best way to keep up to date is to follow Vengan Pa’ka on social media for updates. “I knew I wanted to be a little more mobile,” says Umaña. “Not just being in one place every day of the week, but really jumping around and spreading vegan love.”
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