Gracias Madre

"Ni Tanto Que Queme", original painting by Dottie Oatman

A new take on Mexican Gourmet, sans the carne and queso

After reading the above subtitle, some of you may be ready to stop right now. Mexican food without meat or cheese might just be too painful to imagine. But if so, your palate is sorely in need of some education. Many parts of Mexico serve sophisticated recipes that would take your tongue to complex spice realms it had never dreamed were possible (think cacao, cumin, hundreds of chile varieties), and many said dishes lovingly feature vegetables (zucchini, squash, poblano pepper, even corn fungus) rather than the expected pork or beef. Authentic Mexican food relies not on the layers of melted cheese Americans have come to expect in their Tex-Mex enchiladas, but instead features dashes of fresh crème or often no cheese at all.

Gracias Madre, a new organic restaurant on Mission and 18th in San Francisco, capitalizes on the healthier vegetarian side of Mexican cuisine while still retaining the authenticity of gourmet Mexican flavors. In fact, all food in Gracias Madre is vegan, so no animal products are used in any of its production (they use Agave instead of honey, for those of you who were about to ask). Opened by the same owners of Café Gratitude (a famous raw food restaurant just blocks away on Harrison St.), Gracias Madre uses 100% organic produce, and their menu shifts depending on what is available at their Organic Farm, The Be Love Farm. I found the food to be a reasonably priced and innovative take on the cuisine that draws people to the Mission District night after night, and both meals I had there have been surprising, delicious and healthy.

I’ll now address the most pressing question you have first, which is, How am I going to like Mexican food without cheese? The short answer is, there is cheese and you will like it. The long answer is, the cheeses, ice creams, and milks are made from ground nuts. The most prominent dairy product on the menu is their cashew cheese. Both times I had it, the cashew crème was fashioned like crème fraîche on my plate, in dollops above the beans and sautéed vegetables. The cream is airy and smooth, with a subtle flavor that reminded me of quark. One woman at my table didn’t even realize that she wasn’t eating cheese until after the meal was over. Sure, this cashew cream will never have the sharp, tangy edge of a Cabot cheddar, but it’s a fitting substitute for Mexican cheeses, which are often very mild and sometimes flavorless.

To start the meal, Gracias Madre offers antojitos such as squash and caramelized onion quesadillas with pumpkin seed salsa, roasted potatoes with garlic and “nacho cheese” (a spiced up cashew cheese), and sopa de coliflor (cauliflower). I had the Tostada as my main meal during my first visit, and it made a nice small meal: the tortilla made from ground heirloom corn was crispy and flavorful, there were strips of fleshy green chiles, and the whole thing was topped with delicate roasted pumpkin seeds. The refried beans were mouthwatering; I don’t know how they do it, but these black beans stood out to me as one of the best things about the food at Gracias Madre. The legumes had the richness and depth of beans fried in lard, but obviously that’s not their secret.

As for main courses, I was dying to try the mole and see whether it lived up to my memories of the velvet-deep spicy sauce of Central Mexican cooking.  The Enchiladas con Mole Poblano came topped with sauteéd mushrooms, cashews crème, and smothered in beans. The sauce itself was delicious–no, not quite the chocolaty mole I remembered–but nicely spiced just the same. It was on the lighter side of Mole sauces, and persimmon colored rather than burgundy.

Another addition to my meal was a simple side of Asparagus grilled with a light dusting of cumin. The vegetable came perfectly grilled, slightly smoky in flavor and not the least bit stringy. The beauty of Gracias Madre is they aren’t afraid to serve a plain vegetable as a side, and reveal the vegetable’s fresh flavor without suffocating it in cheese or herbs. I thought about trying the Kale, Roasted Squash, and Roasted Poblano Chile Strips (Rajas), but will have to wait until next time.

One drawback of Gracias Madre is the layout of the restaurant. The cramped tables and low ceilings were passable for nighttime, but my lunchtime experience made the place seem like a dark cafeteria. The chairs out front, behind a metal gate artfully fashioned like corn husks, seem OK for afternoon get-togethers, but I doubt I will dine inside during the day again.

For dessert, I finished with tasted of a flan entirely composed of nuts. It had the same silky texture as normal flan, and the same sweet creaminess, but without the eggs and milk. A couple of bites of the rich concoction and a final drag of sangria were enough to send me on my way–nourished, content, and with my taste buds singing Gracias.

Gracias Madre is open daily from 11am to 11pm. They serve local beers on tap, wine, and cocktails made with Soju. Reservations can be made for parties of 5 or more at (415) 683-1346


Miso Challah Buns in the Sandbox

San Francisco can be crowded, snobbish, dysfunctional, and even gritty. Part of what keeps me here is that it is a city of secrets, of overlooked perches and un-mined corners. The most exciting moments of living in a fixed place is when small discoveries are made, and the city reveals another flash of its mystique to only those who are continuously searching for the new, the next, the unexplored.

Before I get carried away, let me just say that my small discovery yesterday was by no means new to many people living in San Francisco. But for me it was just the kind of discovery I needed to remind myself why I am still living in the city by the Bay.  I finally made my way up to Cortland Street in the Bernal Heights neighborhood in search of a new fusion bakery and was startled to find a nook that seemed utterly distant from the cosmopolitan clamor of downtown or the hipster rush of the Mission.

Cortland is quaint and peaceful and has more of a small town feel than would seem possible in a city of 700,000. To the North of the street looms the green slope of Bernal Hill, and to the South lies the crowded valley and green hills of Daly City and beyond. Quiet churches, carefully tended used bookstores, and charming antique shops characterize the sleepy storefronts.

Best of all, there are dozens of food options in Bernal Heights that I’ve never even heard of. From Italian Vinotecas, sushi joints, local bakeries and delis, cafes, and The Wild Side West Bar, which I’ve always been told is a hidden gem, Cortland modestly reveals that despite its old-school charm, it has much to offer in terms of victual pursuit.

Sandbox Bakery, on Cortland between Gates and Ellsworth, is run by chef Mutsumi Takehara, who garnered her gourmet touch from both Chez Panisse and Slanted Door. The baked goods are made fresh daily and in small batches. The reason I voyaged over the hill to find it was that the premise–a Japanese French Bakery–enticed my fetish for all things fused and hybridized. With it’s off-the-beaten path location and this unique mixture of cultures, I had to go see what Sandbox had in store.

What surprised me was that it is not a sit-down place, not even sit down for a second with your coffee kind of place. There are no chairs or tables, and the tiny space reveals just a simple glass counter with baked goods and a side counter with coffee accoutrements. Pastries included the normal French arrangement of scones and croissants, but what makes this place special are the Japanese-inspired delicacies.

After admiring a bun filled with red-bean paste, I opted instead for the savory Negi-Miso Challah Bun. Delicately filled with scallions and miso and glazed in Sesame oil, this made the most perfect flavorful snack that I will definitely return to. I also bought some gingerbread when I noticed that threads of fresh ginger were poking out of the rich looking rust colored cake. The “normal” gingerbread was just as delicious and unique as the exotic-seeming morning bun, so Sandbox proved itself to be a place for classic and twisted treats. Creative fruit tarts with goat cheese and bush berry or yuzu marmalade with sage definitely caught my eye, and certainly made me want to return for a second visit.  See their complete menu here.

Sandbox is reasonably priced as well; not nearly as steep as nearby Tartine (though I still claim Tartine is the best bakery in the world). My only qualm was the coffee situation. Why offer two different local roasting companies for the same price? Sandbox has both De La Paz and Ritual Coffee and they make each cup individually for only two bucks–I guess South of Cesar Chavez can really pay off–but there didn’t seem to be a need to split roasting loyalty for the same type of beverage. The decision will probably only end up confusing people and making newcomers to the SF coffee scene feel inadequate for not being able to choose.

I stuck with De La Paz’s rich silky brew and happily munched on fresh gingerbread all the way up steep Gates Street back to Bernal Hill. As I reached the top, the view of the lurching streets of San Francisco spread out before me and the sun shone on this Southern side of the city, reminding me why Bernal Heights may just be my new favorite spot.

Oh Hungry Devil

The day after I conceived of this blog, I was packing up my things from the classroom where I help teach journalism and gazed up at the bookshelves. The first title to become clearly legible was The Ravenous Muse, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, which turned out to be a collection of passages from writers, philosophers, and artists all relating to food and eating. The front of the book sports a greedy raven scrambling to demolish a plate full of books, and the cover design plays with severe shades of blacks and reds, giving it a demonic air. 


A Table of Dark and Comic Contents, a Bacchanal of Books

The Ravenous Muse pieces together quotes and passages from mostly European and Slavic writers such as Balzac, James Joyce, Nabokov, Flaubert, and Rilke. Gordon interlaces these passages with mischievous descriptions and annotations, lending it a personalized cohesiveness. The subtitle of the book, “A Table of Dark and Comic Contents, a Bacchanal of Books,” hints at its hedonistic tone. However, while many of the quoted characters revel in the pleasure of imbibing, such as Toulouse-Lautrec when he asks his mother: “Has the goose-liver season started? If it has, remember to have a dozen tins sent to me,” many of the selections also deal with food metaphorically, as a tool to unlock the poetry of the everyday. René Char, a living French poet, uses allusions to bread and baking to delicately characterize his lover: “Woman! On her mouth we kiss the madness of time; or side by side with the zenith cricket, she sings through the winter night in the bakery of the poor, under the softness of a loaf of light.”

Gordon supplements her collection with a generous heaping of subtitles and a section of witty and unusual biographies of each writer at the end. I enjoyed stumbling across the collection as it united two of my passions, and made them seem inextricable yet bizarrely foreign to one another, depending on the quote.  Gordon’s selections sway between absurd, comical, eerie, and romantic. Sometimes they invoke the authors we’ve known and studied and shove them into a new light. “Is there not a sweet wolf within us that demands its food?”, asks Emily Dickinson, and we smile to imagine her in a stark, solitary house with a hungry canine as a companion. Gordon establishes an intimacy with us and draws out our appetites, addressing us in her introduction: “Since you are here, you too must be a bibliogourmand, taking sensual as well as cerebral pleasure in the act of reading. And that’s what’s on the table here: creation caught in the act, writer and muse in flagrante delicto, biting each other’s mouths.”

Foodies and farmers often seem fixated with the material substance of food, but it’s interesting to also consider it’s place in literature and culture, as a metaphor and a delightful participant in many surrealist fantasies. The Ravenous Muse does not claim to explain food’s importance in literature, but it’s exploration of authors and their depictions and musings on victuals will surely satiate.