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If you hadn't heard about Gracias Madre — you're not plugged in to vegetarian circles, say, or you're past the age of 30 — and you found yourself meandering down Mission Street on a Friday night, chances are you'd be struck by the look of the place and wander inside. Everything you'd spy would be promising. The wrought-iron field of corn that stretches across the entryway. The enclosed patio, with its 10-foot mosaic of the Virgin, arms outstretched to soak in the warmth of the heat lamps. The raw pine tables and multicolored ceramic tiles inside. The cook pinching off balls of masa and pressing them into tortillas, the griddle next to her constantly covered in pale brown rounds. It's rare to find microbrews and mariachi singers in the same room. And when you pick up a menu, you'll notice something even rarer: a Mexican menu free of the sacred presence of pork. And chicken. Egg and sour cream, too.
Gracias Madre opened at the end of December and soon set off my popularity alerts (the exact algorithm is patented, but involves blog spikes and "What have you heard about ... " e-mails from acquaintances). By rights, I should have paid a visit to Gracias Madre a couple of months sooner. I had a few hangups to get over first.
Not the veganism, which, after all, is the largest populist food movement to sweep America since the reign of Dr. Atkins. Every dairy-free, egg-free cupcake that makes it onto the market — and there are a lot these days — gets pounced on by a new model army of Skinny Bitch in the Kitch readers and "hegans" (the Boston Globe's newly coined slang for manly, health-conscious vegans). Restaurant critics ignore vegans under peril of obsolescence.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
No, I had to get past the fact that Gracias Madre is a spinoff of Cafe Gratitude.
In the early days of Matthew and Terces Engelhart's raw-food restaurant, I fell for its rambling 1970s-style decor, its menu of dehydrated-seed "nachos" and dried-tomato and cashew-cheese "pizzas," even the way all the dishes were named "I am [affirmative adjective]." I always walked out feeling like I'd snarfed the contents of a CSA box, counteracting weeks of carnitas tacos and almond croissants. As Cafe Gratitude turned into a chain, though, the prices almost doubled and the affirmation shtick grew wearisome.
When faced by the prospect of Cafe Gratitude, Mexican edition, I was put off by the thought of ordering "Soy intuitivo" tamales and exhortations to "Exprese la gratitud!" from servers who weren't doing much to earn mine. Then veg friends who had stopped going to Gratitude for the same reasons started telling me how much they'd enjoyed their meals at Gracias Madre. They were quick to mention that the Engelharts' beliefs, which a series of investigative reports had revealed to be based on the Landmark Forum philosophy, had disappeared into the background.
So I made an exploratory trip. Then went back. After three visits, I wouldn't call myself a lover, but I get the Madre love. Gracias Madre fills a niche — affordable, healthful vegan Mexican food made with organic, local ingredients — and does it fairly well. The inconsistencies that occur have everything to do with seasoning, or the season itself, and little to do with the cooks' vision of what vegan Mexican food should taste like.
The Engelharts and their cooks have put together a short, interlocking menu that is currently centered on the vegetables of late winter and early spring, such as kale, squash, mushrooms, and asparagus. This quartet is stuffed into the enchiladas and tamales, folded into the tacos, and presented as sides. Many of the ingredients, the menu claims, come from the owners' Biodynamic Be Love garden in Pleasant Valley. Reassuringly for us Gratitude ex-fans, the dishes have straightforward names, and the waiters, all lovely, practice without preaching. Oh, and if you're worried about the whole price-per-pound-gained ratio, don't: I rolled out stuffed every time.
The taco plate ($11) presented a vegetable sampler — sweet roasted butternut squash, garlicky sautéed mushrooms whose juices concentrated as they cooked down, grilled asparagus dusted with cumin — each on its own tortilla and decorated with a tart squiggle of cashew crema. The tacos came with well-seasoned refried black beans and a heap of escabeche, searingly vinegared carrots, onions, and cauliflower. And what tortillas! They were made from a nutty, dark-skinned heirloom corn that made the masa look like it was heavily seasoned with black pepper. On one visit, I ordered a scoop of guacamole ($6), perhaps the only item on the menu that didn't require veganification, just to work my way through a basket of the warm, soft rounds.
For the quesadillas ($8), one of the restaurant's best dishes, just-pressed tortilla dough was folded around creamy, roasted butternut squash; caramelized onions; and cashew cheese. (The tangy "cheese," which is made of soaked raw cashews whizzed up into a loose white sauce, appears in 90 percent of the dishes. Tasting more like sour cream than cheddar, the innocuous purée adds a light, tart note and some richness to everything it coats.) The quesadillas were pan-fried until the shells crisped, then slathered over in a deep, toasty pumpkin-seed sauce.