There’s a line, maybe 45 people deep, delving nearly beyond the grass laid down in the dining area adjacent from the main stage at the 2016 Life Is Beautiful Art & Music Festival. People patiently wait upward of 30 minutes to sink their teeth into breaded chicken patties smothered with cheese and sandwiched between soft bread with thick pieces of bacon.
Only, it isn’t chicken they are devouring. Or cheese. And, it’s definitely not bacon.
In fact, every item on the menu at this mobile restaurant is plant-based, re-creating meaty dishes such as crispy chicken sandwiches, pulled pork tacos (hello, buzzworthy jackfruit) and more. The brilliance of all of this? Most diners aren’t aware that what they’re chowing down on are cruelty-free versions of their favorite quick eats.
Welcome to Leslie Marroquin’s Garden Grill, which also happens to be one of the most popular vegan spots in town, despite the fact that it doesn’t a brick-and-mortar home. Garnering a cult following, Marroquin, who first launched the mobile eats in 2013, travels around town hitting farmers markets and special events, opening her awnings, setting her chalkboard out with the day’s menu (arrive early, or there will be lines) and serving up some of the Valley’s tastiest vegan versions of omnivore favorites.
Marroquin got her culinary break in San Diego crafting plant-based versions of dishes such as mac ’n’ cheese and wraps for Thrive Foods and Mother’s Market in Orange County before arriving to Las Vegas in 2012. She worked for Nevada’s Women, Infant and Children office, but she resigned from her position when she realized that it didn’t align with her core beliefs.
“I loved that job, but they would push a lot of dairy,” she explains of her resignation. “I would do cooking demos, and they said I would have to start using meat, cheese and dairy. I told them I loved my job but I couldn’t do that … so I left.”
Unemployed but passionate, Marroquin contemplated her next step. At this point, she had been a vegan nearly 10 years . “I had nothing,” she recalls. “I thought, what am I going to do? What can I do that I love? And that is when Garden Grill was born.”
She started simply, hitting up four farmers markets using a little camping stove and a comal to cook tortillas, serving up three tacos—beer-battered avocado, jackfruit and chicken teriyaki, and beer-battered mushrooms—as well as pozole and and two raw cheesecakes. At the time, farmers markets weren’t very popular and the sales weren’t coming.
“It was quiet,” she says. “Scary quiet.”
Then, she started to recognize faces. Soon enough, Garden Grill became popular, attracting folks across the city.
“I get a lot of calls from Yelp, through word-of-mouth and festivals,” Marroquin says.
She even gets customers who use Garden Grill for their meals, some picking up five or more dishes at a time, enough to get them through the week.
Today, Garden Grill’s menu comprises six tacos, three sandwiches, desserts and five specialty items that rotate every weekend, including the Thrillist, a Southern-fried chick’n patty topped with chipotle aioli, lettuce, tomato, Smart Life bacon and Follow Your Heart provolone sandwiched between a sweet doughnut bun (yes, it is delicious).
For now, the only way to get these dishes are to follow Garden Grill on Instagram (@gardengrilllv) and hit up the markets where the eats are being doled out to the masses. And she’ll be back to feed the hungry music lovers at Life Is Beautiful this year, where lucky out-of-towners will also get a chance to experience what we locals have access to so easily.
But don’t rule out something a little more permanent in the future for Marroquin. “I’m always looking,” she says of a freestanding restaurant.
We should be so lucky.