Bernice Vargas Luna El Hongo Magico Taqueria
Bernice Vargas Luna, founder of El Hongo Mágico. (Credit: Courtesy of El Hongo Mágico)

In spring 2021, Bernice Vargas Luna and her husband decided to switch to a plant-based diet for health reasons. During this transition, they had a hard time finding foods from their Mexican heritage – at least, ones that were free of processed ingredients. Missing the classics of her childhood, Luna started recreating her mom’s recipes, substituting assorted vegetables for meat, and found mushrooms to be a versatile and flavorful stand-in for beef and pork. In 2022, she opened a Chicago-based taqueria, El Hongo Mágico – the first of its kind in the Windy City – to sell her updated creations. Since opening, Luna has struggled to find balance between her day job and her restaurant – but she says every happy customer makes it all worthwhile. 

Here’s our lightly edited Q&A, from The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project.

How is your business different from others in your industry?

We use foods like mushrooms and other vegetables, rather than processed foods like soy, gluten, or meat alternatives. By offering a plant-based menu with no allergens, we can serve more customers with dietary restrictions or preferences. No other taqueria in Chicago can say the same!

Beyond that, we team up with organizations that make plant-based food options more accessible to the masses. And, we work with local schools to craft plant-forward menus and host workshops that help both parents and students understand how delicious and varied plants can be.

Tell us about your biggest success so far. 

Recently, we were named one of Eater’s Chicago’s Essential Taco Restaurants! And, we are the only plant-based option on the list. Making it on this esteemed list – one that isn’t just about plant-based food, but great food in general – is very special to us, and lets us know we are on the right path. 

What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?

When we decided to open a restaurant, we didn’t have any experience in the food industry. We had to learn a lot along the way, and frequently connected with our network and community to seek resources. I used SCORE for their mentorship programs and webinars, and enrolled in the City of Chicago BACP for resources and training in business ownership. 

Have you experienced any significant personal situations that affected your business decisions? 

Taking on a startup journey while still holding down a 9-to-5 job. I have had to learn how to manage time, set boundaries and implement self-care. Because my spouse is also my business partner, we have had to learn how to listen to each other and understand how each of us reacts in that context. As a result, I have grown as a person, and so has our marriage.

What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs? 

Make sure you know your “why.” You will have to come back to it as you grow – having that solid foundation will be key. Also, use the resources available to you in your community. For example, we have learned much from working with organizations like Plant Chicago, Start Small Think Big, Allies for Community Business (A4CB), and Food Hero.

How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?

I think about why we decided to do this. When I am tired from my day job and have to commute 60 to 90 minutes to the food hall to make tamales, I remember the woman who told me she had not had a tamale since going vegan a few years ago. Or, I contemplate the customer who always buys our tacos, but also tried his very first tamale with us! I love sharing my culture with others, and I feel real gratitude when those moments hit.

What is your go-to song to get motivated on tough days?

I love dancing, especially cumbias (a Colombian dance). “Juana La Cubana” is always a great song for dancing.

Who is your most important role model?

My mother, and my sister, Alejandra. They’re considered the cooks of our family. I’ve always admired my mother’s cooking, and the way my sister can open the fridge and throw something together so easily. I have always connected food with family in my mind, as I have so many loving memories attached to some great food.

Instagram: @tacoselhongomagico
Facebook: @tacoselhongomagico
TikTok: @tacoselhongomagico

Check out our Advice + Tips for entrepreneurs starting-up
Watch our latest
Subscribe to our podcast