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First Bite: Gracias Madre

I will admit right up front that I have—well, had—a bias against cashew cheese. A strong, baseless bias against food items that call themselves something they are not: tofu posing as ice cream, seitan posing as sausage. I also have a strong bias against hemp parkas, for obvious reasons. But last night, at Gracias Madre, I experienced both hemp parkas as well as cashew cheese, and here I am to tell the tale.

It would be accurate to say that I was skeptical about Gracias Madre, the vegan, organic Mexican restaurant in the Mission, owned by the Cafe Gratitude team, that opened just after Christmas. I love vegetables and I love Mexican food, but it's the rest of it—the slavish devotion to gratefulness, the "our mission is love" talk that is central to the dining experience at Café Gratitude (of which there are now three scattered throughout the Bay Area) has always struck me as precisely the kind of talk I was warned about when I moved from the jaded East Coast out West to San Francisco.

Happily (for me, at least) I found the restaurant—a long, warm space with a long bar, an open kitchen and sturdy Mission-style furniture, still smelling of new wood—to be almost entirely devoid of the Café Gratitude attitude (even though founder Terces Englehardt and a host of CG employees held court at a nearby communal table). Though there is no meat or dairy on the menu, there are magical words such as roasted, steamed and sautéed—words that mean your food is cooked using, you know, heat. Guacamole suffers not at all from a vegan mandate—theirs is chunky and pleasing, with rings of serrano chili lending a slow burn. Meaty, toothsome mushrooms, which appear in many guises, are a fine substitute for meat and a good taco filling. The soupy black beans—like a looser refried bean in texture—are well-seasoned. A side of kale with pumpkin seeds for crunch? Delicious. Oddly, some of the other things that are almost inherently vegetarian or vegan are where the kitchen seems to lose its footing. The housemade blue corn tortillas that accompany the guacamole are baked, not fried, and are unbearably, tooth-breakingly crisp, as though they'd been left to long in the oven. Those same thick, leaden tortillas also enclose the various taco fillings—mushrooms, rajas and onions and roasted butternut squash—and though they are softer here, they're still took thick and tough, developing a chewy rigor mortis as they cool. What's wrong with regular tortillas? Or, to put it even more succinctly: if it isn't broke, why try to fix it?

A promising butternut squash filled tamale, which seems the ideal vegan entrée, was similarly tough and dry, and the fresh salsa beside it, a mixture of cucumber, (gasp) fresh tomato and not enough chilies or acid, did nothing to elevate the dish. Only the escabeche vegetables, which included cauliflower and carrot, saved the platter. "You know what this needs?" whispered my dining companion, leaning in conspiratorially. "Cheese." Which brings us back full-circle, back to the cashew "cheese" that began this whole vegan vision quest. Unable to resist trying it, we ordered the garlic-roasted potatoes topped with what the restaurant describes, without quotations, as nacho cheese. Well, let's be honest here—this is not nacho cheese. But the potatoes were swathed with a generous pour of an orange-y white, creamy sauce that was cheese-like in flavor, cunningly crafted from organic cashews, chipotle peppers, Himalayan salt, nutritional yeast, garlic, jalapeño, and soy lecithin. It was really very good, but I found myself thinking that I'd probably like it more if it stopped pretending to be something it wasn't.