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A couple of dishes tried too hard. The chile relleno ($15) was simply a pair of roasted, peeled poblanos filled with watery, underseasoned squash; it wanted some time in a deep fryer and a proper tomato-chile sauce. The tamal ($11) also suffered under its own healthfulness; the rubbery cake needed some Crisco whipped into the masa to lighten and moisten it up. And if you're contemplating an $8 glass of horchata listed on the menu, don't let the waiter sell you on the fact that the drink is made with housemade almond milk — strap a flask of horchata-flavored Rice Dream to your leg, which tastes just as good at a quarter of the price. Or stick to beer.
A few of the dishes needed only small corrections, such as the rajas ($5 as a side), one of the few traditional taco fillings vegetarians have learned to look for on taqueria menus. The sole substitution Gracias Madre's cooks made was the cashew cream to bind the sautéed strips of roasted poblano, onion, and garlic; it would have worked had they cooked the vegetables together long enough to let their flavors meld. Same with the undercooked cauliflower with "queso fundido" ($8), a gratin of cauliflower and cashew cream — the vegans sure do love their dairy substitutes — sprinkled with smoked-chile powder.
But the vegan posole ($6), the chickpea-hominy broth redolent with earthy-sweet dried chiles and sharpened with a squirt of lime, was excellent. So was the lightly sautéed kale ($5), toasted pumpkin seeds scattered across the frilly green leaves. The seeds' fragile, almost meaty crunch also brought together the flavors on the tostada ($5): the thick layer of black beans, the lettuce and sautéed squash, more cashew crema.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
Like most of Gracias Madre's dishes, the tostada was sturdy and far from bland — the kind of food you'd imagine was dreamed up by Moosewood Cookbook–toting hippies wintering on the Oaxacan coast. I suspect the menu will get even better as the season of tomatoes, corn, and fresh chiles, with all their flashy summer flavors, comes around. In the end, it's possible to enjoy Gracias Madre's food while setting aside all questions of authenticity, health benefits, or philosophy. Which is something to be grateful for.