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Gracias Madre

Meatless Mexican in the Mission

The concept of vegan Mexican food might seem an amusing oxymoron, particularly considering the restaurant's taqueria-rich locale. But even the most devout carnivore will be thanking their mother after sampling some of the excellent dishes that hail from Gracias Madre, the casual Mexican eatery from the founders of Cafe Gratitude.

In fact, it’s really good, and it's vegan-ness is almost beside the point. It has all the resonant warmth, spice, and comfort of Mexican food without any of the belly-clutching or nap-taking often necessitated after the typical Mission burrito. Though some may quickly dismiss Gracias Madre as a bunch of crunchy gringos neutering a native cuisine to fit with their one-love-under-cashew worldview, in reality it's far more nuanced and thoughtful. On offer is an alternative, demonstrating that Mexican food and organic, responsible eating are not mutually exclusive ideas.

Founders and owners Matthew and Terces Engelhart take sustainability seriously, and their organic and biodynamic Be Love Farm in nearby Pleasant Valley provides the majority of the produce. The same care and attention is applied to the massive space, equally divided between the dining room and the open kitchen. Despite high ceilings and a long, stone bar, Gracias Madre still feels homey and warm with sky-blue walls and a touch of wood everywhere. The seating is largely communal, including picnic tables under heat lamps outside.

It’s not a huge menu, but there is plenty to choose from; much of it familiar (tostadas, tacos, tamales), some of it unexpected (Brussels sprouts gratin, cauliflower soup, Caesar salad). There are no chips and salsa but guacamole con tortillas ($6), theirs a pleasantly chunky version with cilantro, onion, chile, and lime that arrives with a basket of housemade blue corn tortillas still warm, thicker-than-average, and toothsome.

Though currently only a special, the pozole ($7), a hearty Mexican soup traditionally made with pork, is reason alone to revisit Gracias Madre. Covered in crunchy slivers of tortilla strips, shredded cabbage, cubes of avocado, and a handful of cilantro, its intense and robust broth resonates with the heat and fragrance of dried chiles, oregano, onion, and garlic. A squeeze of lime and a stir of the spoon sends the cashew cheese swirling into the hot bath, lending a creamy richness to the soup and revealing plenty of hominy bobbing soft and plump below the surface.

Quesadillas de Calabaza ($8) are a looser interpretation: Two small tortillas are stuffed with a butternut squash and caramelized onion purée before blanketed in pumpkin seed salsa and cashew cheese. The result is warm and wonderfully oozy.

Straight-forward tacos ($11) require no translation. A slurry of soft and luscious black beans accompany three corn tortillas topped with seasonal vegetables, such as smoky roasted poblano chile strips sautéed with onion.

The Enchiladas con Mole Rojo ($13) and the Chile Relleno ($15) needed improvement. The first oddly open-faced and sorely under-dressed; the stuffed poblano a jumble of too-soft vegetables monotone in flavor and bite. But the tamal ($11) is sensational, thanks to the intensely sweet stoneground heirloom masa. Stuffed with strips of butternut squash and green chile, the dense center is moist and almost buttery, while the thinner, tapered ends take on the crumb and fluff of cornbread. Served with refried beans and pickled vegetables, the tamal is also offered solo as a side ($5).

Those reasonably wary of vegan desserts should reconsider. The coconut-lime cheesecake ($8) is supreme by any measure; confoundingly rich, alluringly, and assertively flavored. But the airy wedge of chocolate cake with coconut ice cream ($8) hints at its vegan roots if you insist on scrutinizing. However, its pool of cacao cinnamon sauce makes up for any moistness the cake lacks. How they manage to make a flan ($8) silky without eggs and milk is an alchemy best left to the magicians.

Beverages are not overlooked, with freshly pressed and undiluted aguas frescas ($5/$8) like coconut, grapefruit, and pineapple. Ginger ale and fresh lemonade ($5/$8) are made-to-order using housemade syrups and agave, as are mojitos ($5) and margaritas ($5), both made with soju. If nothing else, try the horchata latte ($5), excellent hot or iced and made with their own rice milk.

Although their “mission is love” and their food “medicine for both the body and spirit,” Gracias Madre feels far more relaxed than Café Gratitude, and the ideology substantially less invasive. While still more expensive than your average taquería, Gracias Madre is more affordable than Gratitude as well. For this and the restaurant in its entirety, we are grateful.

Vegan Mexican
Reservations Essential? No.