Something has always eluded me about Gracias Madre. From the name alone, I knew it was a Mexican restaurant, but then I started hearing that it was actually a vegan spot. A vegan Mexican restaurant? Well, that’s just unheard of.
How can Mexican food be Mexican, without carne asada, pollo asado, and my favorite, lengua? These are the flavors that I’ve associated with real Mexican food growing up in various parts of Los Angeles and San Diego, where there are taquerias on every street corner filling the air with aromas of roasted carnitas.
Needless to say, I had my doubts. It didn’t really help that this seemingly “pseudo-Mexican-vegan-hippie place” was established in the Mission—home of the hipsters. Therefore, it took me about one year of passing by this place numerous times, to finally walk-in and give it a chance. I also had to stop hating on this place because my good friend now works there.
Well, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised.
First off, the ambiance is intimately festive and inviting. The warm tones of natural wood from floor to ceiling really make this place feel cozy. The handpainted Mexican tiles along the walls and floor, add just the right touch of color and festivity without being tacky. It’s as if you are walking into your abuelita’s house for dinner, where she’s been spending all day cooking a fulfilling meal just for you. The kitchen is open, and I love it when restaurants are set up this way. I love being able to have full visibility of how my food is being prepared. It adds another level of feeling connected to what you are about to put into your body, and another level of trust that is established with the people that are feeding you.
As my crew and I sit down, the first order of business is of course, drinks. Here, they offer a small, yet wonderful selection of organic wines and locally-crafted beers, as well as a variety of craft cocktails spiked with Soju. You won’t find hard liquor here. They even have a wine made from the grapes harvested from the restaurants’ farm in Sonoma. I end up ordering the El Burro–a Moscow mule type of drink with house-made ginger beer, mint, and Soju.
Yes. Gracias Madre has their own bio-dynamic farm, the Be Love Farm, where they source most of the ingredients they use in the kitchen. They even make their own tortillas from non-GMO corn grown on the farm. This place isn’t just riding on the trend of sourcing local organic ingredients, they’re really embodying the philosophy. This is really as local as it can get.
You’d be surprised at how many places in the city can claim to be using local ingredients, when they’re really not, considering that a dinner in the city can cost an arm and a leg these days. As someone who used to work in the kitchen of a top restaurant in the city, it’s easy to play the part when the customer already assumes that they are eating local; especially in the Bay Area where the best produce in the nation comes from.
Anyways, where were we? Yes, the food.
I always love trying new restaurants with a group of people, so that you can order a bunch and try everything. I’ll go over the dishes here one by one:
Ensalada de Cole Rizada
Kale salad with orange slices, shredded jicama, carrots and toasted almonds dressed in a smoky yet light chipotle vinaigrette
An explosion of flavor, yet refreshing and light. The crunchy textural elements played nicely with the tender kale. The tartness from the flavorful vinaigrette really gets the salivation going in preparation for the following dishes. A great starter to the evening.
House made corn tortilla chips served nachos style drenched in a spicy cashew cheese sauce
The crunch on these tortilla chips is delicate, yet rustic and hearty. It’s as if you can taste every single kernel of corn that was rolled into this tortilla. The cashew cheese sauce is a staple here, and is used on almost all the dishes. It’s a velvety silky smooth mixture of cashews and spices made into a sauce that makes you forget about the sour cream and shredded cheese.
Quesadillas de Camote
Sweet potato quesadillas made with house made tortillas (the texture on these is incredible) smothered in a pumpkin seed salsa drizzled with creamy cashew cheese sauce
This was the star of the night. I’m usually not a fan of sweet in savory dishes, but the delicate sweetness from the creamy sweet potato complimented the savory, nutty flavor from the pumpkin seed salsa. This sauce is incredible—I can just slurp a whole bowl of it just by itself. Let’s see if I can even put this flavor into words. This pumpkin salsa/sauce is nutty, herbaceous and deeply savory—like a rich, meaty gravy. For a moment, I had to remind myself that this is purely vegan.
Coliflor con Queso Fundido
Roasted cauliflower dip made with cashew cheese sauce and topped with garlic breadcrumbs
The cashew cheese sauce makes a comeback here and is mixed with roasted cauliflower and baked in a ramequin until it is hot and gooey. Served with warm tortillas, the flavor is mild and creamy, and makes a very approachable dish for non-vegan eaters. After a few bites however, I found this dish to be a bit bland as the flavors got lost amongst the other more spiced and flavorful dishes.
Grilled ear of corn topped with cashew cheese sauce and lime
Biting into this corn was like biting into candy. Never have I had corn that was so sweet and juicy. It’s got a nice char on it too, there’s always a fine line between burnt and masterfully grilled.
Warm, gluten-free fudge brownie made with black beans and topped with crunchy smoked coconut bacon, served with whipped cream made with…you guessed it: cashews
Rich and chocolatey and decadently moist. The coconut bacon was a nice touch on top of the pillow of whipped cashew cream. I appreciated the touch of saltiness in the whipped cream to balance out the sweetness of the overall dessert. This cashew thing sounded weird at first, but it really works. Unfortunately, we managed to scarf this baby up before I had the chance to take a picture. #toogood
Eating at Gracias Madre made me taste vegetables in a whole new way. I discovered brand new flavors from the vegetables that I took for granted, and which I now have a newfound appreciation for. So did I miss the meat? No, not at all. It’s possible to have a feel good meal that is authentically Mexican without being a carnivore after all.
No more hatin’, this place deserves props.