When VIP wrote our restaurant review of Leonor's Vegetarian Mexican Restaurants in 1999, we reacted favorably to the items we were served in the meal. After detailed questioning, we were assured by the staff that all the items we ordered were vegan. That review has been posted at http://www.vegparadise.com/dining10.html
VIP has eaten at both the North Hollywood and Studio City locations. Both currently have different owners but have similar menus. The Studio City location was sold to Jose Lopes, a former chef of Leonor's.
Since we published our review, we have learned from some of our readers that both restaurants have not been truthful about the contents of some of the items on their menu.
"They have lied to people for years and me especially since I lived right next door to the Studio City location and ate there at least 5 days a week and many days more than once," says reader Arnold Freeman. "I am 100% sure that their cheese and chicken were not vegan."
Another reader Janeen Rae Heller says, "The bottom line is I don't trust them. They instruct their employees not to give out information. Leonor herself will not give out information."
Janeen told VIP of another customer who cornered the deliveryman to determine the ingredients in the cheese. The woman told Janeen the cheese at the Studio City location was vegan. Janeen believes the chicken nuggets and the chopped chicken are vegan, but the chicken sandwiches are not.
Repeated efforts by VIP to have dialogues with both owners have resulted in frustration and little evidence because the owners do not want to provide answers. When we visited both locations, we were either told they were too busy or the owner will be present at another time. Phone calls have also been similarly unsuccessful, except for one where Leonor herself admitted that one variety of soy chicken she uses contains 2% egg whites that she considered insignificant. An employee at the Studio City location assured us on the phone that all the items were vegan -- no dairy or eggs in any of the cheese or chicken meals.
One VIP dinner visit, after Leonor had left for the day, did yield information about the cheese. We asked whether the cheese had casein. The kitchen helper showed us the label that indicated casein was in the product.
VIP has contacted state and local agencies to determine whether any action could be taken to persuade Leonor's to be truthful in responding to questions about eggs and dairy in their meals. The City Attorney's office would not take any action unless the Los Angeles County Health Department discovered the restaurant was violating existing regulations.
A conversation with a representative of the Los Angeles County Health Department yielded little satisfaction because the restaurants were not violating the Truth-in Menu provisions of the California Health and Safety Code. A verbal statement does not constitute a violation of Truth-in-Menu.
Even the California Department of Consumer Affairs could find no reason to become involved in this matter. Representatives of all three of these agencies felt it was wrong for the restaurants to lie, but there were no regulations dealing with this situation. If someone became ill because of allergies to eggs or dairy, that person could pursue legal action.
Although prospects for any actions by government agencies are dim, VIP has decided to write to the Consumer Affairs Department detailing complaints about Leonor's. The letter we sent is as follows:
January 28, 2003
Consumer Affairs Department
Leonor's Vegetarian Mexican Restaurants have lied to their patrons for years about ingredients in their meals. Customers like us who have food sensitivities or allergies to dairy products and eggs or those who avoid these items for ethical reasons have been told that these items are not present in their food choices. We have heard from many others who have been deceived by both restaurants. Both locations currently have different owners.
Because we have food sensitivities to both dairy products and eggs, we asked the server if any of our selections contained either. We were assured they were not present in our dinners. We later learned that we had been deceived. The soy cheese contained casein (a milk derivative) and the soy chicken was held together with egg whites.
We have appealed to Los Angeles Health Department, but they cannot take action unless the food is unsanitary or there is a violation of the Truth in Menu. Unfortunately, the menus in these restaurants have no indication that any items do or do not contain dairy or eggs.
We would like to appeal to your agency to help us persuade these restaurants that it is their obligation to provide honest answers when patrons ask about specific allergens in food items. We also would like to see them indicate on their menus the items that contain eggs or dairy.
Zel and Reuben Allen
Leonor's Vegetarian Mexican Restaurant
Leonor's Vegetarian Mexican Restaurant
Because of this reluctance to be forthcoming about ingredients and because their menus do not indicate which items are truly vegan, we cannot recommend Leonor's Vegetarian Mexican Restaurants as places where vegan diners can find appropriate meals.
We will continue to post the original review on the website because there are ovo-lacto vegetarians who will find the meals acceptable. The review will have a cautionary note that will include information provided in this story.