Every time I go to Gracias Madre’s sister restaurant Café Gratitude, I’m put off by the staff’s concern about my well being and taken aback by the final bill, but the vegan food is awfully good and from time to time, I return. Given that experience, I wondered whether folks would pay more for vegan tacos. Sure, expensive vegan Mexican might make it in Pacific Heights, but would it do well in the heart of the Mission District at 2211 Mission St.? Would Gracias Madre’s success become a litmus test for how much the Mission has changed?
Curiosity about Gracias Madre mounted as the opening kept getting postponed. It was supposed to open in August and through the summer months and then the fall, I walked by frequently to see oh-so-many workers inside sanding, building, constructing. What were they doing in there? I imagined so much time spent on fine tuning every spindled chair that the place would look like a restaurant on the main tourist corridor of Tijuana.
It doesn’t. It looks great with a clean, almost Bar Tartine-like bar, an open kitchen with light coming in from the many-paned windows in the back and beautiful Juan Fuentes art along the walls. The hardwood floors are sanded (did it really take that many months?) and wood wainscoting meets earth colored walls that reach gloriously high.
The owners like their wood, said Anrica, one of the reporters joining me for lunch. True, but it works.
I sat down and although three different staff members came up to me in the first three minutes, no one asked me how I was doing or what I was grateful for. Relief. I ordered guacamole con tostadas ($6) and Quesadillas de Calabaza ($7) and waited for the others to arrive. When they did, we dug in.
The guacamole was flat. We asked for salt (They don’t like to use much here, the waiter explained,) which helped. So did the very good, very dry, toasted tortillas, but we weren’t fighting over the remains.
“It says it has chili, but you can’t taste it,” said Andrea, our visiting scholar from Mexico.
The quesadillas, thanks to caramelized onions, cashew cheese and a pumpkin seed salsa were very good—one of the best dishes we ate.
Inspecting the surroundings as we waited for our entres entradas, Anrica held up her napkin. “Aren’t these like what you put over dead people? Shrouds? ”
She had a point. The rumpled muslin squares are surely vegan approved, but definitely odd. Andrea found them difficult. “They keep leaving bits on my lips,” she said.
On to the food. We pretty much went through the menu. Armand opted for Enchiladas con Mole Poblano ($12). What can I say? The open-faced enchiladas didn’t look like any I’ve ever seen, but the mole was lovely and rich. There could have been a lot more. Enchiladas want sauce. The beans, Armand pointed out and everyone agreed, were great. They tasted like beans instead of lard or anything else.
The chiles rellenos ($14), Andrea’s dish, was hot, and the pickled vegetables a highlight, but the rellenos could have used more taste and less fire. The three tacos for $10—again, dry. The squash was sweet, the poblano chile strips bland and the mushrooms could have used more time in the sauté pan. The tamale with squash and chile ($10) had more taste.
“Everything is medium good, but you want it to be better,” said Andrea.
“The sangria’s really fruity,” Armand offered hopefully.
Maybe some of the problem was the presentation, or what Anrica called the “brown plates, brown food” problem.
Still, we had to try dessert postre. The flan, we were told, only worked on opening day, but now the cooks couldn’t get it to harden. So, we opted for the toasted coconut ice cream. Up until this, the majority at the table had decided that they would return only if someone else was paying, but as someone said, “I wouldn’t come up with the idea myself.”
But the coconut ice cream—a sort of crumbly concoction that in no way resembles anyone’s ice cream—was excellent. Worth a return trip for at least two of us. Later, Armand pointed out that it was really more of a winter menu and that it will be interesting to see how it develops. Gracias Madre has some kinks to work out. In the meantime, she’s not wanting for customers–a day before New Year’s eve, Madre was doing a pretty fair lunch trade. We’ll return. You gotta give your vegan Madre credit for trying.