Vengan Pa’ka is bringing ‘farm-to-cart’ vegan fare to Madison
Juan David Umaña, whose past experience includes a stint at Chez Panisse, focuses on local, sustainably grown ingredients at his food truck.
When Juan David Umaña, owner of vegan food truck Vengan Pa’Ka, had the opportunity to move from the West Coast to Madison last fall he said it was an easy decision. “I’ve always loved Madison,” Umaña says. “So why not bring some plant-based food to the Dairy State?” Debuting earlier this month at Doundrins Distilling and the Madison Summer Vegan Pop-up Market, Vengan Pa’ka focuses on global street food with a local twist. “[We] showcase different cultures and their cuisine through products that are available locally rather than trying to source everything to be ideally what you would see in Thailand or South America,” Umaña says. “We work hand-in-hand with [these] local products.”
Originally from Colombia, Umaña moved to the United States with his family when he was 8 and moved around the East Coast before landing in Champagne, Illinois, where he attended school and worked in the restaurant industry. After graduating from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a degree in psychology, Umaña decided to study the food industry, focusing on “sustainability, locality, organics,” he says. “That inspired me.”
From Illinois, Umaña moved to Denver, Colorado, where he worked at the Kitchen, a restaurant that focused on seasonality and ethical sourcing. “That is where my idea started tingling,” Umaña says. “I love this concept of being conscious of food, and the quality of food is showcased. And you work with local farmers and purveyors to create some amazing stuff.” It was also in Denver that Umaña and his partner, Allie, started to embrace a plant-based diet.
Next they moved to Eugene, Oregon, where Umaña continued working in the food industry at places that focused on sustainability and seasonality but “I wasn’t working for individuals who were vegetarian or plant-based,” he says. “I had been toying for a number of years for doing a food truck but I didn’t quite know what concept … And then I realized, OK, it’s gotta be veganism. All of these restaurants where quality of ingredients were such an important aspect to the model, but [they were] still meat-centric. I wanted to bring that but with plant-based, high-end food that even if you are an omnivore you would still enjoy what we are producing because it is tailored to the palate.”
Umaña launched Vengan Pa’ka — the name, a nod to Umaña’s Latin and Colombian roots, is “a welcoming call, ‘yeah, come on over, vengan paka,’” he says — in the winter 2017. “The worst time to start a food truck,” Umaña says. “Everyone was like, ‘It’s going to be raining all the time,’ we were like ‘This is great, it will let us get our feet on the ground, start expanding our wings, experiment with what we want to do.’”
The following summer Vengan Pa’ka won two awards at a large food truck event including most creative. They made everything from sauces to falafel in-house. Umaña loved working with the farmers and producers in the Willamette Valley region in Oregon. “We were blessed,” he says.
Next they moved to California’s Bay Area where the truck was put on hold. Umaña started working at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ farm-to-table restaurant in Berkeley. “It’s very beautiful,” Umaña says. “The energy there — everyone is committed to that idea of organics, sustainability, ethics, bio-dynamics.” While working at Chez Panisse, Umaña felt validated in his beliefs that led him to create Vengan Pa’ka in the first place. “I saw what I had been dreaming of be fulfilled. You can start with a dream and stick with it and it can manifest and mold into something that people love,” he says. And then the pandemic hit, which threw 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 family. Umaña was also excited to bring his vision (and food truck) to Wisconsin. “It was beautiful seeing the infrastructure that is already set up in Oregon and California, but it’s not as needed as out here,” he says. “I think there is a lot of desire and a push to move more in that direction of organic and local sourcing but it’s not quite there yet if you compare it to the West Coast, so now it is seeming like the perfect move.”
Umaña spent the winter months making connections with local producers including Tortilleria Zepeda who is making a 7.5-inch tortilla for Vengan Pa’ka’s birria, one of the dishes on the rotating menu. Umaña says birria is traditionally a tomato-based pork stew. Vengan Pa’ka’s rendition is topped with onion and cilantro and served with the tortilla for dipping and features lion’s mane and hawk’s wing mushrooms instead of meat. Umaña is excited about Tortilleria Zepeda’s tortillas and ethics. “People think ‘Oh plant-based, as long as we are eating all plants it’s fine,’ but I also focus a lot on footprint, the packaging, reducing plastic as much as possible,” Umaña says. “[Tortilleria Zepeda] is also highly focused on that.”
Umaña is also partnering with Origin Breads who is using local, organic flour to make sunflower buns for the truck’s sandwiches. An upcoming hoagie-style sandwich on the menu features blue oyster mushrooms, collard greens and Vengan Paka’s pepper jane ‘cheese,’ a riff on pepper jack made with almond milk, potatoes and peppers.
For now Vengan Pa’ka is popping up in different locations, including a return trip to Doundrins Distilling on Thursday, July 1 and a stop at Delta Beer Lab and on Saturday, July 3 (Saturdays at Delta will be a regular gig). Best way to stay in the loop is to follow Vengan Pa’ka on social media for updates. “I knew I wanted to be a little more mobile,” Umaña says. “Not just be in one place every day of the week but really jump around and spread the vegan love.”
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