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