Back in January, a very, very long year ago, it was a crisp and cool night outside of Potek Winery in The Mill on East Haley Street. A growing group of hungry diners were huddled in their beanies and fleeces, sitting and standing much closer together than six feet apart, as the smell of Mexican spices emerged from a wide, sizzling griddle. On the menu were steaming bowls of savory pozole verde and bready tortas, with your choice of chorizo, suadero, or pastor as the filling.
As we all knew — most evident in the bold front-of-neck tattoo sported by Dalan Moreno, the fully inked chef in charge — these colorful, aromatically enticing proteins were not derived from animals. They were instead, as that tat proclaims in chin-to-clavicle script, “VEGAN,” the method and message served up by Rascal’s Pop-Up, which Moreno started in 2018.
He’s popped up all across town since then, from Satellite on State Street to Telegraph Brewing on Salsipuedes to Santa Barbara Cider Company in Old Town Goleta. But, thanks in part to the hospitality holes caused by COVID, Rascal’s is now a steady fixture every Tuesday and Wednesday at Bibi Ji on State Street, where Moreno changes the menu weekly while sticking to his wheelhouse of Mexican street foods and American classics — all 100 percent vegan, all the time.
“I just wanted to eat what everyone else eats, but vegan, and it was hard to find those things here,” said the 30-year-old, Westside-raised/Eastside-residing Santa Barbara native of what led to this business. “I’ve never been into veganism for my health. I know some people are, and that’s cool, but I just never wanted to consume animals, and that’s it.”
That motivation came when he was just 15 years old, after watching a disturbing documentary about slaughterhouses. “I didn’t want to really partake in consuming animals after I saw that video,” he explained. “It didn’t seem necessary.”
There was a problem, though. “When I went vegan, my mom told me she wouldn’t make food for me,” he said. “It made things harder for all of us to eat together. I didn’t really care. I was 15 years old — you do what you want to do.”
This was 15 years ago, when there were not many vegan options in town, nor did Moreno have much money to spend on eating salads and veggie burgers at places like the Natural Café all the time. He found some solace in Tofutti ice cream sandwiches, Follow Your Heart vegan cheeses, fried rice from Shanghai on Milpas Street, and bean, rice, and guacamole burritos from Super Cuca’s. But he was mostly inspired to try his own hand at cooking.
So on weekends, he’d have other vegan-inclined friends over and test out recipes. “I would make pizza and tacos at my house for all of my friends,” he said. “I started cooking out of necessity because there was nowhere really to go.”
After dropping out of Santa Barbara High, Moreno worked construction and carpentry jobs, continuing to make food for himself. Vegan options grew over the years, “but I wasn’t loving them,” he said. “I just wanted more Mexican and American food that was vegan.”
He’d also started visiting Mexico City regularly, staying there for months while working in the family restaurants of his close friends. “I would watch how everyone makes their food and try to learn from them as much as I could,” said Moreno. He also gleaned a lot from Vegetal Vegancarniceria, a popular plant-based restaurant in Mexico City, and helped his friends add vegan options to their restaurant menus.
In 2018, Moreno hosted his first pop-up on the Westside, serving tortas and pozole. He chose the name Rascal’s because he doesn’t really have any formal training. “It’s like I’m a little rascal,” explained Moreno, “just going for it.”
As he hosted more pop-ups, Moreno worked briefly in the kitchens of Black Sheep and Satellite, where vegan-leaning chef Emma West was particularly helpful in teaching professional techniques. “Like any trade, there are tricks for making things faster,” he said of those experiences. “You don’t just cut one potato at a time. It’s like carpentry — you don’t just cut one block at a time. You try to cut them all and then install them.”
To produce his vegan dishes, Moreno uses vital wheat gluten, tofu cheese, and sometimes mushrooms — “It all depends on what I’m making,” he said — but the bulk of the meats are made from soya. A popular ingredient in Mexico, soya is texturized soy protein, coming as little, dried, flavorless pebbles, like crumbled, dessicated tofu with a firmer structure. “You rehydrate it and put any flavors you want into it,” said Moreno, who makes pastor, chorizo, and even chicharron, or pork skin, from it, the latter of which makes a crunchy base for burritos. “You can make anything with it.”
In addition to his pop-ups, Moreno shared his vegan tricks with Super Cuca’s on the Westside, where they’ve become popular alternative fillings for the restaurant’s popular burritos and more. ”I’ve been going to Super Cuca’s and getting burritos forever — I don’t remember a time before,” said Moreno. “Why not teach Rodolfo [Rios], the owner of Super Cuca’s on the Westside, how to make this and help him out and have more vegan options for the community and have it accessible for everyone?” Added Moreno, “I recently taught them to make cheese too, so they have nachos now.”
Moreno started serving weekly at Bibi Ji on September 26 at the invitation of his friend, co-owner Alejandro Medina, who wasn’t using the kitchen on Tuesday and Wednesday nights due, in part, to COVID impacts. Recent menu highlights have been those lightly crunchy chile verde chicharron burritos; tortas de cecina enchilada, inspired by adobo-marinated dried pork; pambazos, which are salsa-fried bread sandwiches; and last week’s chile relleno burger, served with a holiday-spiced ponche drink. They’ve remained popular midweek options even into the recent shutdown and are planned to continue into 2021.
So what does his mom think, now that his teenage vegan epiphany is a viable business? “She likes it,” said Moreno. “She supports me no matter what I do.”
And what about that aggressive VEGAN neck tattoo? “I got I when I was 19,” said Moreno. “It’s something that I passionately believe in.”
Rascal’s Pop-Up serves dinner and sometimes lunch every Tuesday and Wednesday at Bibi Ji (734 State St.;  560-6845; bibijisb.com). Check weekly menus and specific hours at instagram.com/rascal_sb.
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