What does a High Desert couple do when traveling on the road of poor nutrition and unhealthful lifestyle choices?
If you’re Hispanic, you adopt a vegetarian lifestyle, then open “The Vegan Vato” Mexican restaurant on D Street in downtown Victorville, store owners Damion and Amber Carlos told the Daily Press.
The couple scheduled a Wednesday ribbon-cutting grand opening at the new restaurant inside the city-owned Victor Valley Transportation Center across the street from the California Route 66 Museum.
“Over the last three years, we developed a series of Mexican food recipes, but without meat and all the unhealthy ingredients like lard, salt, saturated fat and certain oils,” Damion Carlos, 37, said. “We’re still using Grandma’s tasty recipes, but with a unique vegan twist.”
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The culinary couple uses several plant-based proteins in their recipes, including the “Carne Asada” made from flavored hibiscus flowers roasted with mixed bell peppers.
Another protein is the “Chorizo,” made of crispy potatoes and toasted cauliflower in an authentic sauce.
The store’s menu includes the Barrio Burrito, Taco Trio, Loco Nachos, Loaded Fries, Enchiladas and Taco Salad Bowl.
Sides include tacos, rice, black beans, fries, avocado and extra protein. The sauce lineup comprises salsa, nacho cheese sauce, chipotle sour cream and several topping ingredients.
“There’s a lot of restaurants in the High Desert that serve vegan options, but we’re the only place that serves a full vegan menu,” Amber Carlos said. “We’re here for those that are hardcore vegan, those that are part-time vegans, and those who just want something healthy.”
There’s a “massive vegan community” that’s growing in Los Angeles and Orange counties, with a growing vegan fan base here in the High Desert, Damion Carlos said.
The couple pointed out that even actor-comedian Kevin Hart opened his plant-based restaurant Hart House near the Los Angeles International Airport this month.
According to Forbes, Hart calls himself a “flexitarian” and doesn’t eat red meat, pork, or shellfish but says “I love me some chicken.”
In terms of interest in plant-based eating, Hart said “This idea was right in front of me. We explored how many people are trying this. It makes sense; you can’t ignore numbers.”
A 2020 poll by Gallup found that 23% of U.S. adults say they have reduced the amount of meat they consume. Another poll by Gallup says 41% of U.S. adults have tried plant-based meats.
“We’ve been working on the building since October and put all our life savings into renovation, repairs and remodeling,” Damien Carlos said. “We put in new floors, installed a new refrigeration unit, updated the kitchen and created a small but modern and elegant dining area.”
The building, which the city leases to the Victor Valley Transit Authority, was once home to Renee Allen’s Mac & Cheese restaurant and a temporary shelter operated by High Desert Homeless Services.
The Vegan Vato is also across the BNSF railroad tracks and the site of the decades-old and razed La Paloma Bar, which was owned by Damion’s late grandfather, Tony Carlos Sr.
“It’s cool to think that our business is located near my grandfather’s old property, which is still owned by my family,” said Carlos, about the empty parcel on the corner of E and Sixth streets.
La Paloma served as a café and bar before it closed and became a sandbag factory. After the building went empty, unhoused people moved in, the building caught fire and the structure was demolished.
The couple’s quest to create healthier meals and later a restaurant came nearly three years ago when a fat and sugar-laden Christmas meal made the couple ill.
“During that time, I found out that my blood pressure was sky high and my wife’s blood sugar was out of control,” Carlos said. “That’s when we realized we were heading down a wrong and very deadly path.”
Carlos explained that his parents, Tony Carlos Jr. and Rene Carlos; his grandfather and his uncles all suffered from heart disease and diabetes.
“My mom died of a heart attack, and my grandfather died of heart disease,” Carlos said. “My dad had four strokes and is completely paralyzed. He’s the one that refused to give up his beans, rice, tortillas and chorizo.”
After looking at the mirror and the possibility of their five children growing up without parents, the couple visited a doctor, who placed them on medication.
After researching several diets, the couple discovered the teaching of the late Alfredo Darrington Bowman, also known as “Dr. Sebi,” a Honduran native and self-proclaimed herbalist healer who endorsed a plant-based alkaline diet.
After the couple designed their vegan lifestyle and experimented with vegan cooking, loved ones started joking with them about being “Mexican vegans.”
“That’s when my wife told them they were looking at two vegan vatos that were much healthier,” Damion Carlos said. “That’s when we adopted the business name.”
The slang term “vato” is most commonly used to define a Hispanic “youth, guy or dude.” There are times when the word has a gang connotation.
The barbs from loved ones about going vegan stopped, along with diabetes and blood pressure meds, after Damion lost roughly 40 pounds and his wife dropped about 60.
During their weight loss and cooking journey, the couple began showing their dishes online, with the popularity of their cuisine spreading across the internet.
Family and friends urged the couple to start making their food available to the public, which led Damion and Amber to set up their mobile kitchen and pop-up tent at various roadside locations.
They began showcasing their cooking at Apple Valley, Helendale, Hesperia, Victorville and Wrightwood farmers markets, as well as at events across the High Desert and Southern California.
“I used to serve clients as a photographer and makeup artist,” Damion Carlos said. “Now, I serve up culinary masterpieces with food as my paint.”
The Vegan Vato is located at 16838 D St. in Victorville. For more information, including store hours, call 442-251-9634, visit https://theveganvato.com/ or search The Vegan Vato on Instagram or Facebook.
Daily Press reporter Rene Ray De La Cruz may be reached at 760-951-6227 or RDeLaCruz@VVDailyPress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DP_ReneDeLaCruz.

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