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.

Biscuits of my Soul

So I’m back after a very long period in which I certainly kept eating but haven’t paused to reflect about it. I’ve always had the problem of beginning blogs and then sort of petering off after a couple of posts, but I am determined to continue this one, even if it’s not at a consistent pace. As long as I live in the city of blissful eating, this blog must live on.

I don’t intend to write too much about restaurants in this blog; there are way too many people who spend way too much time on Yelp or on review blogs and I have neither the money nor the attention span to commit to every new restaurant that rolls around. But an exception must be made, and that exception is Brenda’s French Soul Food. Serving a breakfast like no other in the city, this cafe resides in the heart of the Tenderloin on Polk and Eddy. The chalkboard out front entices you with Brenda’s daily offerings, and the hoard of diners normally crowding the door and front window is a fitting symbol of Brenda’s committed following.

Now, let’s get the most important aspect of the breakfast over with immediately. I would hop on my bike in a matter of seconds to get my paws on one of Brenda’s biscuits. They are, sincerely, absolutely, in all senses of the word within the biscuit universe, perfect. Delicate, crumbly, fluffy, light, buttery, and absolutely seductive. They wait patiently on your plate like illuminated dandelions, the ones with the rabbit-fur poof that takes flight with the caprices of the wind, and the first bite is the entering into the cloud while rising in an airplane and when the bite’s over you are sailing over strata of cloud upn cloud and soaring. I’m not usually this hyperbolic about food. But these biscuits are magical.

And naturally, anything you pair with them benefits from their character. The first time at Brenda’s, I had eggs florentine: two poached eggs resting magnificently atop a nest of spinach sitting on the levitational biscuits and topped with a cajun hollandaise. The combination of egg yolk, spinach, and biscuit sent me straight to breakfast purgatory–I had to keep eating because it tasted so good, but I dreaded the minute the experience was to cease. To supplement the already brilliant concoction, Brenda makes savory potato hash with scallions and tomatoes. I also sampled the apple preserves along with the biscuit and wished I had another biscuit to eat solely with the jam.

My second visit to Brenda’s was equally successful: again, a cup of thick chicory coffee warmed my palate and prepared me for breakfast food. This time they were not serving the florentine so I ordered the vegetarian omelet instead. The dish was not nearly as exciting as the eggs florentine had been, but the biscuit was almost better this time and I ate most of it with jam or syrup.

My roommate Gretchen went straight for the Banana Bread Pudding French Toast special. The dish arrived with three moist banana bread triangles drizzled with a toffee rum syrup, candied pecans, powdered sugar, and whipped cream. The intensely sweet breakfast was perhaps a bit much for those who can only survive a small bit of sugar, but Gretchen, along with ample help from yours truly, had no problem polishing it off. The word orgasmic definitely entered our conversation more than once while we were eating.

One criticism is that the menu is not all that vegetarian friendly; many dishes come with tomato bacon relish or incorporate meat in other ways. True to her New Orleans roots, Brenda makes few revisions to her French Creole dishes.

I ran into her in the kitchen on the way to the bathroom and commended her on the fabulous food. She was there cooking, like most mornings, and stopped for a second to thank me in a casual tone. I asked her if she had ever been to Lucille’s in Boulder, CO, my other favorite cajun breakfast spot, and told her that they make their own Katsup. “We make the katsup that goes on the burger,” she said. So maybe next time I will ask specially for a bit of homemade katsup to accompany my potatoes.

You can visit Brenda’s every day except Tuesdays for Breakfast and Lunch, but watch for deservedly long lines on the weekends.

Storytelling and School Lunch Nostalgia

Bud Teasley is an unassuming chef with clear blue eyes, a mild Southern demeanor, and an intricate loom-like tattoo stretched across his forearm. A Georgia bred, Charleston-trained chef, Bud helped found Boccalone, “tasty salted pig parts,” the king of salumi stands at San Francisco’s Ferry Building Farmers Market, and he caters for a mishmash of events on the side. He will sweetly whip up the most complex of meals and act like he hasn’t spent more than five minutes on them.mail1

He has. He doesn’t hesitate to incorporate labor-intensive elements to his creative dishes, such as artisan honey mustard or homemade brioche. At a recent stint at Mission Street Foods, he even created bacon-flavored caramel covered apples to adorn a salad that tempted this mostly vegetarian out of her ascetic pretenses.

So it’s no wonder that 826 Valencia was thrilled to have him cater their storytelling dinner on March 19th. The event demanded a bit of creativity. Hosted by numerous donors and led by the energetic and ever-loquacious Jory John, Storytelling for Adults was a spin on 826’s normal storytelling fieldtrips, usually presented to classes of 3rd to 5th graders on schooldays. In the adult version, tables of eager adults, softened and encouraged by the wine donated by Quivera, got to partake in their own field trip and create a group-story with a chose-your-own ending.

If you haven’t noticed, adults sometimes take a moment to warm up their creative juices. Bud faced a challenge; how to satisfy paying guests with attractive gourmet victuals while also paying homage to the nostalgia for elementary school. And so he took on the device that inevitably ruled the school day for most of us way back when: the school lunch.

Appetizers consisted of bowls made of hollowed-out grapefruit halvesGrapefruit Salads filled with fennel, grapefruit chunks, and a tasty ginger dressing. The next course was ambitious: Bud created his own version of the chicken nuggets and dribbled homemade honey mustard and crème fraîche for dipping beside them. Also on the plate was crisp macaroni and cheese casserole squares, perhaps not the most delicate of dishes but certainly gratifying. 

Gourmet chicken nuggets and mac-n-cheese

For the vegetarians in the audience, Bud substituted the nuggets with his version of sloppy joe; made from seitan, slow-cooked vegetables, and seasoned with a delicious combination of spiced tomato and brown sugar, the veggie Sloppy Joe proved mouthwatering and should have been the envy of every carnivore in the room. To accompany dinner, each table also had a large bowl of simple peas and carrots, straight from the cafeteria-style.

Dessert abolished any lingering suspicion of a lack of complexity in the meal. Bud decided to de-create the ever-loved PB and J, taking the staple to a whole new level with his innovation. Starting with a handmade brioche, he then added a layer of peanut butter ice cream, topped it with a level of Welch’s grape jelly, and doused the whole thing with a thin layer of warm milk chocolate.

The story created by the end of the workshop turned out a bit weird: entitled “What We Have and Where We are Going”, it follows a depressed monkey named Ugabuga, his sidekick possum named Slick, and their arch-nemesis Goyal, a shape shifting lizard. The plot eventually devolves into a critical mass ride through the French quarter of New Orleans during Mardi Gras; schemes are hatched, instruments are stolen, and somehow outhouses are overturned. Most adults prove much less creative, open, and naturally funny than kids. But it seemed that attendees enjoyed the lighthearted ambience and stimulating group activity; the chance to be silly and get creative. Though the mood and decor inspired nostalgia for elementary school, the flavors on everyone’s palettes were definitely all grown up.

You can find out more about Boccalone on their website.

Also, check the Mission Street Food Blog for when Bud will be cooking at the England vs. Scotland dinner sometime in May. 

Bud’s (not) Recipe For Vegetarian Sloppy Joe

“I don’t have a recipe, but it went something like this:

  • 1 can whole peeled san marzano tomato 
  • 1/2 can tomato paste 
  • 1 cup brown sugar 
  • 1/4 cup honey 
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika (pimenton de la vera) 
  • Salt and Pep TT 
  • 1 bell pepper
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion 
  • 2 cups TVP
  • splash of soy sauce 
  • splash of crystal… or any other hot sauce 

Method: Dice onion and bell pepper. Sweat in olive oil with a pinch of salt until translucent, then add all remaining ingredients and allow to simmer for about an hour. Mixture is better if allowed to cool overnight in the fridge, then reheat. Serve on garlic onion buns.

Now Serving, My Weekly Morsels

This isn’t my first blog, but it’s certainly my first of it’s kind. My first blog was for a creative writing class, and the rest of them sprung from adventures around the world and my desire to publish parts of my travels. Those blogs are dormant because the adventures are over, for the time being. And now I’ve begun a new adventure–moving to a new city, not knowing where I’m headed, living independently–and I feel ready for a new format. I get to set a new design theme, color palette, title, and font. Writing is easy when you’re sinking into a new structure. Inspiration strikes more often, and the words want to try out their new environment. It’s like getting a haircut and feeling like you suddenly smile more.  

Oats is a blog that’s been begging to be let out. About two years ago I began to take more interest in food, ingredients, and cooking. During my senior year of college, I was lucky enough to live with two unique ladies who also loved to cook and were also thinking a lot about food. We had allergies, dietary concerns, budgets, and partialities, but somehow we managed to make beautiful food together. We owe a lot of it to Marie Claire’s Spicy cookbook, the Middlebury Co-Op, Tracy Young’s culinary ingenuity, and finally living off-campus. After a year of fancy experimentation, failed baking and fabulous cocktail mixing, food just keeps getting more interesting. 

My burgeoning interest in food hasn’t died down, and suddenly I find myself in the epicenter of foodie-ism. San Francisco is replete with gorgeous and delicious food. Lush asparagus and glistening navel oranges greet me at the many organic corner stores. Farmers Markets happen daily and year-round. Restaurants for every ethnicity and budget beckon in every neighborhood. If you’re living in San Francisco, I don’t need to tell you how lucky you are. If you are elsewhere, believe me when I say, no exaggeration, this is food paradise. 

But food is not a static entity. It is not simply the tasty fuel we imbibe, digest, and expel. These days, where food comes from is quickly becoming the hottest question in both kitchens and congress. I am interested in food writing because  food connects to much larger-scale issues. Food relates to culture and regionalism and family. To taste and tradition and history, to science and biology. Perhaps most importantly, food is very simply an important part of pleasure and happiness. It pervades the environmental and agricultural problems that urgently demand our attention around the world. In September, Michael Pollan wrote a poignant letter in The New York Times to the then-future president about the need for drastic reform in our agricultural policies. If you are still reading this post, please take the time to read Pollan’s letter: “Farmer in Chief” 

I know by now that it’s cliché, but I can’t help but rave about Michael Pollan. It’s writers like him that illuminate the interconnectedness of food and personal, community-based, and global concerns. I plan to include more articles like this one in my blog, and I look to Pollan, Slow Food, The Ethicurean, Epicurious.com, Mark Bittman, Wendell Berry, Bill McKibbon, Alice Waters, and other food-writing pioneers as supplementary material. 

I want this blog to address stories and experiences and ideas that relate to food. But I also want it to be about writing, not just as something being written but as something that is conscious about writing and concerned with literature and language. I am blending a tangible, tactile thing with a very abstract one. We’ll see where the recipe takes me. Keep reading!