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This Vegan Mexican Restaurant in Upland Added Eggs and Dairy to Its Menu During the Pandemic, and Now They Have One of the Best Breakfast Burritos In the Inland Empire

3:15 PM PST on January 5, 2022

Welcome to L.A. TACO's new column, 'The I.E. Filez,' where we will bring you the latest bomb spots to grub at and things to know about when driving out to either visit your familia that moved out there or to chill in the high desert or the mountains. Our first story takes us to big bad...Upland. 

As a vegetarian escuincle in the early 2000s, Desayuno, before school, was a scrambled egg, half a slice of American cheese, a strip of MorningStar Veggie Bacon, and a squirt of Del Scorcho, sneaking out of a wheat tortilla, rolled into a tight, little flute. It was a burrito for breakfast, but it wasn’t a full breakfast burrito. A Breakfast Burrito, the way it is known up and down Califas, is the size of an infant; a pillow of eggs, the crunch of hashbrowns, a snap of bacon, glued together with a hug of cheese and wrapped in a flour tortilla. 

I knew the difference, even if I couldn’t taste it. I could get close, sure, no bacon, no biggie. Add avocado and call it a compromise. Still, when you’re eating BBs out, you’re navigating each bite, second-guessing every chew, and praying there won’t be a stowaway of chorizo. (At the best places, there always is.)

At Madre Tierra in Upland, there is no second-guessing. Their vegetarian Breakfast Burrito is a haven for veg-heads across the deep Southland.

Madre Tierra opened their doors in Upland in 2018 as a 100 percent vegan restaurant, serving traditional Mexican dishes and Mexican sushi. But this burrito was born in the summer of 2021, when Leo Gomez, the owner of MadreTierra, expanded the menu to include dairy and eggs. 

The story of Madre Tierra begins more than 20 ago in Lynwood, where Leo grew up after immigrating from Mexico with his family. Before Leo and before the plant-based menu, his parents, Irais and Lalo Gomez, operated loncheras outside of t-shirt factories in Los Angeles. They are immigrants from Toluca, Estado De Mexico, and the Gomez’s strategically sold pan dulce and coffee at 1 AM to migrant graveyard shift workers looking to warm up with something familiar. 

In time, they learned the break schedules of the factories and were ready to warm bodies at every bell. The loncheras sold an assortment of familiar fare, including tacos, burgers, and pupusas, along with coffee and pastries. 

Leo’s journey into food started as a kid on these loncheras, helping his father pre-package aguas frescas in the summer for workers to grab then return to their break. At 18, Leo began operating trucks on his own. Three years later, in 2016, Leo and his family moved to the IE, ready to open a restaurant. Irais suggested the name, Madre Tierra. “My mom inspired the name itself,” said Leo Gomez. But Madre Tierra was not the first restaurant the Gomez family opened in the Inland Empire. Before that was GuasaveRoll, serving Mexican Sushi in Ontario, just a few blocks from what is now Madre Tierra.

“The location was too big, and the sushi was selling, but not enough,” said Gomez. To save the business, Leo’s sister Cinthya suggested adding vegan sushi to the menu to draw customers. At the time, she had been vegan for two years, running her pop-ups to save the business.

Cinthya offered to help with recipes, and together, she and Leo crafted three new, 100 percent plant-based items inspired by their most popular non-vegan rolls. The substitute sushi was a hit. “Eventually, we started outperforming the regular sushi with the vegan food, so we got rid of the real stuff,” said Leo Gomez. Still, the family decided to leave GuasaveRoll behind.

Outside Madre Tierra.
Outside Madre Tierra.

Enter Madre Tierra’s Vegetarian Breakfast Burrito, a wave of melted cheese that gives way to crispy hash browns, then a tumble of scrambled eggs. It’s an ooey, gooey mouthful that finally reveals the smoky crunch of non-meat-based bacon. 

The burrito includes eggs, cheese, hash browns, avocado, vegan house sauce, and vegan bacon. The “bacon” doesn’t overpower the bite and adds a depth and smoke most fake-cons can’t capture. The avocado can only be described as a speed bump, a glorious glob of creamy fat begging you to slow down and enjoy every chomp.

The burrito includes eggs, cheese, hash browns, avocado, vegan house sauce, and vegan bacon. The “bacon” doesn’t overpower the bite and adds a depth and smoke most fake-cons can’t capture. The avocado can only be described as a speed bump, a glorious glob of creamy fat begging you to slow down and enjoy every chomp. The house sauce is tasty but gets lost in the hashbrowns, a salty pocket of crunch and grease that’s familiar and brings the burrito home. It’s all enveloped in a chewy flour tortilla for seamless delivery. 

But the vegetarian Breakfast Burrito wasn’t so much as an idea in those first months of Madre Tierra. In March of 2020, after 11 months of continued success, Madre Tierra was still committed to a 100% vegan menu. In 2020, when COVID began to surge in California, Leo decided to shut his doors one week before the government mandate. For months, the business made necessary adjustments to stay in operation in compliance with the government, weathering periods of closing their doors due to labor shortages or spikes in COVID. 

By winter, despite their best efforts and a decent summer, the family was nearly forced to shut their doors permanently. “Last December, I was ready to close down, and there was no money. Thankfully, with the PPP, we could survive a little longer,” said Gomez. 

Conditions make it harder each day for Madre Tierra to remain competitive. And yet, Leo says his primary motivation for adding dairy and eggs to his menu wasn’t financial. “As someone who isn’t vegan or even vegetarian, I never felt comfortable running a vegan restaurant, and I was losing inspiration with vegan food,said Gomez. 

With the help of the Paycheck Protection Program, enacted as part of the CARES Act in 2020, Madre Tierra was able to secure a loan in January of 2021 that kept them afloat. While helpful, the loan was not sufficient to aid against a sustained pandemic crisis.

Since January, Leo has found new issues, including supply shortages on ingredients, a labor shortage, continued COVID risks, and rapidly increasing production prices, have only worsened conditions. In addition, he has noticed a new labor market is demanding higher wages. “I saw McDonald’s is paying $24 an hour. As a small business, how can I compete with that? But at the end of the day, people need to make money,” said Gomez.

Conditions make it harder each day for Madre Tierra to remain competitive. And yet, Leo says his primary motivation for adding dairy and eggs to his menu wasn’t financial. “As someone who isn’t vegan or even vegetarian, I never felt comfortable running a vegan restaurant, and I was losing inspiration with vegan food,said Gomez. 

However, their menu is already inspired even beyond the vegetarian Breakfast Burrito. Along with the burrito, I try a round of Leo’s vegan favorites: the enchiladas suizas, the coconut shrimp tacos, and a signature cocktail, the Tizoc. I also get a vegan Breakfast Burrito, to be fair. The enchiladas have jackfruit that is miraculously tough and not sour and a green salsa that is balanced with a savory bite. The vegan cheese is believable, and the cashew crema is smooth. This is an instant favorite as a combo plate with beans I know for sure don’t have lard. 

The shrimp tacos: So crispy! Fresh, tangy, crunchy, with a tasty corn tortilla and excellent, soft shrimp. And the Tizoc, named after a film by the same name, starring Pedro Infante, was prepared to perfection by Sarai at the bar, featuring tequila, triple sec, lime sour, cucumber, jalapeno, and Grand Marnier. 

For vegans, the vegan burrito is excellent, and it goes where a tofu scramble couldn’t dare. The egg is a soy-based, fried egg substitute I had never tried before. 

Leo is happy with his decision to expand his menu, and he sees vegetarian food as a more accessible bridge for diners to cross. “For every vegan, there are one-hundred non-vegans, and it’s easier for them when there’s cheese and egg,” said Gomez. 

While it’s easy for him to say, many of Madre Tierra’s more committed vegans disagreed and let their voices be heard when the official announcement was made on Instagram, but Gomez takes it in stride, “The backlash was expected. A lot of people were upset, and they were leaving bad comments, bad reviews, and I understand.”

Throughout our conversation, I sense that Leo is proud of his food. He wears a baseball cap with MT emblazoned on the front. And he should be proud. He’s only 26, and already he has survived a pandemic as a restaurant owner. The food is great, and the behemoth of a burrito that brought us together is a culmination of not just recipes but an ability to make moves when the time is right, even when it looks wrong. 

Madre Tierra is still going, but so is COVID. I ask Leo how he can keep his spirits up through all the ups and downs. His response, “The thing I value the best is the people that have stayed with me throughout the pandemic. The same core that has been here since the beginning is the same core that is still here.”

220 N Central Ave, Upland, CA 91786

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