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Head to Azusa to Try ‘Comal L.A.’s’ Screamo-Rooted Vegan Mexican Food

When chef Andy Zambrano started Comal, he worked and learned at Kitchen Mouse in Highland Park. After culinary school in Colorado, he moved and cooked around the Pacific Northwest for almost a decade before heading back to Los Angeles. Then in 2019, wanting to experiment with his favorite flavors and ingredients and wanting to do something about what he felt was a lack of honesty or versatility in a lot of vegan Mexican food in Los Angeles, he decided to create his iteration. Now, he navigates San Gabriel Valley and other L.A. areas to pop up and collab with businesses like Burgerlords and Soft Humans. He also leads Mantra Coffee as head chef, and he has been able to grow Comal into a vehicle for tradition, experimentation, and understanding. Most importantly, he’s developed a vision that he’s proud of and is constantly growing.

 

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At the end of March, he popped up at Burgerlords in Highland Park. That night, owner Fred Guerrero gave him complete access to the kitchen, and the line started to fill up pretty early. Andy regularly designs Comal versions of things like esquites, empanadas, chilaquiles, pozole, and a guajillo-broth Risotto. But for that evening, he kept service streamlined with four types of tacos. Atop fresh-pressed and perfectly-stretchy corn tortillas, each filling had a distinct pull into savory, sweet, and spicy levels and ranged in textures from juicy to crunchy to that tingly feeling you get in your jaw when you drink Sangria or eat Thai food or red starbursts.

All four taco variations were bonkers. The crispy/tender chorizo in the recado negro chile paste; the salted Yukon potatoes with a tangy spice of the salsa verde; the smoked jackfruit marinated in a sweet annatto sauce and habanero chile, topped with red onion curtido; the delicately seared button mushrooms tossed in salsa macha, each with fresh onion, cilantro, and lime (the real “holy trinity” for many of us in Los Ángeles).

Andy grew up in Los Angeles. In cities like Huntington Park, South Gate, and West Covina, where he’d watch his Dad cook and experiment with traditional and diverse local flavors around L.A. Growing up listening to screamo and hardcore, at 22, Andy started cooking. He didn’t want to burden his parents with his new diet. He wanted to explore being plant-based for himself fully, so he learned about food prep with whole vegetables instead of eating grilled Daiya sandwiches and soyrizo and papa tacos every day. It was around this time, while attending school for child education, that he realized he’d rather be cooking and taking notes while watching The Food Network, so that’s exactly what he did. He went to culinary school in Colorado before moving around Portland and Seattle to learn at restaurants like Caro Amico and Ocho, respectively. Then, when he returned to L.A. and began to work at Kitchen Mouse, he met his mentor and restaurant consultant, Jason Wood, who demonstrated the value of innovation, vision, and accountability in food. Inspired, Andy bought a taco cart, started to craft recipes, and designed his own project.

 

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Zambrano also comes from a rich history of music and project building. As a member of the SGV screamo band La Bella and co-curator of the legendary venue and community center, Bridgetown DIY in La Puente, his history has invariably led directly to where you’re standing (look down). The DIY music scene can be a bittersweet partner. Depending on many things (especially when you start to distinguish genres and sub-genres), it can function both as a platform for self-discovery and a constricting gauge for comparison. But, as the latter is usually self-inflicted and often a motivator to try harder, do-it-yourself is still, at its heart, about growth and community. 

Particularly in the hardcore, screamo, and punk scene, this attention to collaboration and practice couldn’t be more critical. Acknowledging that you are a community member who must stay informed, participate, and support each other to sustain it, is step one. With the trust and encouragement of people in Andy’s life, like Fred Guerrero at Burgerlords and locations like Mantra Coffee, Zambrano can practice and share his art. This framework, one that bolsters equally motivated up-and-comers and a protect-your-own mentality, is warmly reminiscent of DIY's inner workings. Punk tenets like these, and a mindset rooted in a mutual “dis-alienation,” “self-empowerment,” and disruption of the status quo that Kevin Dunn describes in his book, Global Punk (2016), have all helped bring Comal to fruition. 

And, charged by possibility and carving a path, Comal has become the next chapter in Andy’s life. This moment with Comal is an intersection of all his previous existences and an extension of Andy’s identity at this perfect moment in time. And it all began with a strong foundation.

“I feel like the goal is not to make something vegan,” said Andy, “that’s the bump in the road that vegan food has. I don’t want a fucking vegan version of something. I want food. I just want regular food.”

For Andy, learning to do things the right way is the prerequisite for experimentation, and the intuitive methods and framework that he learned at culinary school set everything into motion. At the start of this piece, Andy referred to the epigraph as a cornerstone of his food education and now at Comal. “Just like music, you have to put in the practice.” And just like the greats, you need to learn the standards first. As Andy pointed out, this first step is often skipped in many plant-based Youtube videos or published recipes, and people ingrain techniques that are wonky or just wrong. This then creates an inconsistency in many vegan and vegetarian cuisine, causing misconceptions, or worse, tasting like cardboard. 

At Comal, Zambrano's goal isn’t to create vegan versions of anything. Although all of his dishes are 100% vegan, his creations are about accuracy and execution, not just being plant-based. “I feel like the goal is not to make something vegan,” said Andy, “that’s the bump in the road that vegan food has. I don’t want a fucking vegan version of something. I want food. I just want regular food.” At Comal, as Andy curates and explores flavors from around East and Central L.A., he’s most concerned with his dishes' traditional methods and ingredients and highlighting those that already lend themselves to his project. “When it comes to things like birria,” said Andy, “ it’s the cooking method. The way you cook something, that’s how you make birria. So birria can be beef, or it can be a goat. But it can also be jackfruit. The same thing goes for ceviche–it’s just the method, the way something is prepared, and it can be with pulpo or camarones, or de soya. To me, that’s not making a vegan version of something.”

This is why Comal is another Mexican food pop-up, where flavor dictates all but also happens to be free of all animal-derived ingredients.

As Andy throws his Dodger hat into the ring and joins a tradition of cooking and risk-taking in Los Angeles, he does so carefully. His cooking studies the complex regional preferences in Mexican cuisine, and he approaches his version of classic courses with humility and energy. He also brings imagination to plant-based cooking to illustrate that flavor and diet are not mutually exclusive. Andy creates dishes that are intentional and true to the areas that they hail from, he strives to channel the same love and patience from those recipes into his work, and he can’t wait for you to try everything. 

Drop in to Mantra Coffee in Azusa, try any of Andy’s menu items, and follow him on Instagram @comal_la for updates on Comal’s next pop-up.

The featured image shown above is one of Andy's original recipes for Vegetarian Times, where he is a regular contributor. You can find that recipe for chilaquiles here.  

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