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Maya Ophelia's serves up vegan, 'third culture' comfort food

Two figures stand together and smile in front of a black truck that says "MAYA OPHELIA'S"
Lina Tran
Chase (left) and Jack (right) Roldan of Maya Ophelia's, outside the bar Mothership.

This summer, the food truck Maya Ophelia’s set up shop full-time at the Bay View bar Mothership. Chase and Jack Roldan started the vegan Filipino-Mexican venture in 2018, naming their business after Chase’s mother, Maya, and Jack’s aunt, Ophelia.

The couple soon developed a loyal following, and garnered attention for a “trans folks eat free” policy. But they struggled during the pandemic, and shut down for almost two years, only resurfacing with the occasional pop-up. Now, they’re back, serving up plant-based versions of the food they loved as kids.

I wanted to talk to Jack and Chase because you can’t really find anything like their food elsewhere in the city. They offer empanadas, crackling lumpia filled with oozing “cheez,” and Filipino-style ramen served with a runny egg and fried garlic. Their sandwiches are meaty and come loaded with stuff: lechon or seitan asada, topped with rich sauces and sour pickles. And it's all infused with nostalgia for the food that they loved as kids. Everything's over the top, and somehow, just right.

The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Jack: I never realized that what we were doing would be something that would get national attention. We started a business because we were just kids that sought community through food. Creating community through food breaks down a lot of barriers, and it breaks down a lot of walls. It creates cohesiveness among folks. To see our stuff take off has been very surreal, because I think some people are like, “Oh my God, you're like this multimillion-dollar business.” And it's like, "No, we're just two small people with a small business."

How do you describe the food that you make together?

Chase: I think we would describe it as third-culture cuisine. We are both first-gen kids. Our parents are from different countries. But we grew up here. A lot of the food that we make, it's all rooted in the childhood foods that we grew up eating, flavors and techniques and the places that we got those foods.

A lot of the Moon Cherry stuff mostly is Jack, but it stems from gas station sweets. That's always his sweet spot. A lot of the stuff that I do is stuff that my mom would make me that maybe I wouldn't like so I'd make it my own. But now I'm older. And I can do that on my own.

What was food like in each of your households that you've incorporated into what you're doing now? 

Jack: My mom's Irish. My mom's big rule was always that we would sit down at the dinner table, and we would have dinner and there would be no TV. We would eat all these different amazing things that my mom would cook, but it was also just that we were always growing as a family.

That community part — this is what we bring into our food. Even though we’re not sitting out here, at the table with everyone. I like to think that through what we make, we are having a conversation with you. We're growing and building.

Were y’all partners before starting this together? How did Maya Ophelia’s become a thing?

Chase: We met and our thing was eating, following a plant-based lifestyle. At the time, there was not a lot of stuff here like that.

Jack: There was nowhere to go on a hot date.

Chase: Nowhere. So we would always just cook a bunch of stuff and eat it all. We wanted to bring that to other people who grew up in more foreign atmospheres and didn't have the chance to eat a plant-based lifestyle that wasn't just burgers and sandwiches. I love all that. But I grew up eating some really weird stuff. And I crave it.

Jack: Like intestines, skin. Lengua was always my favorite taco — the tongue.

It's been really fun and funny to make these things. I was just on the phone with my mom. I'm like, “I veganized everything you've made, down to your meatloaf.” And she's like, “What. Why?” I’m like, “Because I love it.”

Some people do start out vegan from birth, but a lot of us don't and we start out eating all these different things. So you have that fondness. We can make it vegan and it's OK. One of our big things is eggs. We have a runny egg that we make. People sometimes have been like, “Why did you put this egg in? It looks like an egg.” Because I like runny eggs in my soup.

a red plastic dining tray is full of food: a sandwich, empanadas, lumpia, and brightly colored drinks
Lina Tran
At Maya Ophelia's, Jack and Chase Roldan reimagine vegan versions of the food they loved as kids.

Say more about your relationship to tradition, expectations. What would the aunties say? 

Jack: I think my mom is equal parts flattered and appalled. Like, "Why would you veganize this?" But it’s also core memory. Even with our kids, we'll share these things. We get the aunties at the truck, where they're like, “Why are you doing this? What were you thinking?” Then they try it. And they’re like, “Oh!” It’s the auntie sign of approval.

Chase: I think it's comfort. Everyone likes to eat the stuff that they grew up eating. We do too. I just want to eat stuff that I love. But that's also good for me and good for the planet.

You grew up in a mixed Filipino household? 

Chase: My mom is Filipino. My stepdad, who I was raised [mostly] by, is Palestinian. My real dad is Puerto Rican and German. My granddad loved the ladies when he was younger. I have family all around the world. I grew up eating everything.

Jack: My mom is Irish, and then my dad being Mexican — they were bonded by Catholicism. Sometimes, with folks, it's like, we're all this or we're all that. We're both just — I hate using [this] — but we're all-American.

You're cooking plant-based food in the land of cheese and dairy. Do you think Milwaukee has influenced your cooking?

Chase: Oh yeah. I was a meat and cheese kid. I was talking to Jack the other day about how I think it's funny most of the stuff that we do is very meat-heavy. “Meat”-heavy.

Jack: Other places can cook tofu. But if we put too much tofu, [customers] are like, “We need that Maya Ophelia’s vegan meat.” I feel like we've made a name for ourselves because [Chase] grew up so meat-heavy. Chase is all like, “I remember how this tastes. I will figure out how to make this vegan.” That’s part of what brings people that comfort to our food. Even if they've never tried tamales or empanadas, they're like, “It tastes meaty. I remember that.”

a blue building has a sign outside that says MOTHERSHIP
Lina Tran
This summer, Maya Ophelia's set up permanent residency behind the bar Mothership in Bay View.

The way that you talk about putting dishes together, it's like this puzzle. “How do I recreate this thing and get it to match up with this childhood memory?” What is that like? How long does it take? 

Jack: We're such Type A people. It's that day, things get discovered. Because once we have that “aha,” we need to dive in right now and figure it out.

For us, it's really important that we're not just making the traditional things. We got taught to make those things, we can all make it at home. But we want to make something for kids like us. I hate the term “fusion,” but we try to create an elevated version of it. Something that's slightly a twist or different. I think [that’s] the part that takes longer. Figuring out how are we going to reimagine this.

This summer was tough for food trucks across the country. We had extreme heat, wildfire smoke. You're cooking plant-based food out of this sense of responsibility to the planet. How do you think about climate intersecting with the work that you do? 

Jack: We think about it a lot. People don't know that if you eat plant-based for one meal, you save over 40,000 gallons of water and a couple animals. That's why the menu changes so much, because we try to source everything from local farmers and makers.

It's a growing thing that I think, especially in food service, we all have to wake up. Owning a food business inherently creates a lot of waste. It just does. Even if you donate the food, there's certain things that you're just throwing in the trash. I’m always thinking, “How can we reel it in?”

Chase: Reducing waste is a huge thing. But also erasing the stigma of vegan food. That's still very much a thing, especially in the Midwest. A lot of people didn't grow up cooking for themselves. A lot of people we know cook from the can. There's nothing wrong with that. But it's self-sustainability. We're introducing different ways to eat food that maybe people think they don't like, and helping them realize, “Oh, I can grow this in my garden and cook it in a different way and actually really, really like it.”

What are you excited for?

Jack: Honestly, we're just happy to be back. I don't think people realize that what really got affected by the pandemic were businesses that were as small as we were. We were so small that we were not making capital gains enough to even seem worthy enough for any grants. Those of us that were that small vanished. We went back to working the jobs we had before this. I went back to bartending, [Chase] went back to working in a kitchen.

We have this dream and this passion. I want to tell people that you can do anything you put your mind to. Just don't stop, keep on pushing. I would love to see us create even more community. Starting a nonprofit or animal sanctuary. We have wild goals.

The mark that we want to leave is community. It's awesome that people love the food so much. But sometimes I'm like, forget about the food. We want to engage people again and have people grow and sit together and have a meal.

Maya Ophelia's is parked behind Mothership at 2301 S. Logan Avenue.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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