“Gracias Madre” means, essentially, “Thank you, Mother Earth.” The food here is strictly plant-based, vegan, gluten-free, non-GMO, organic and Mexican. Gracias Madre is highly touted by vegetarians and vegans alike, and always packed. I’d always steered clear of it because a) the BF is a confirmed carnivore; and b) my experience with eating at straight-vegan places has not always been stellar. But I had hopes that the Mexican flavors would be a good medium for this type of cuisine. After all, Mexican food is full of chilies, beans, rice, and corn — staples that lend themselves naturally to vegetarian cooking.

The space is long and cozy, with communal tables, both on the front patio facing the street and inside. There’s bar seating, too, and the décor is an updated, rustic Hacienda style.

Owners Matthew and Terces Englehart started Gracias Madre in the Mission and have since opened one in Los Angeles, as well. Before Gracias Madre, the Engleharts ran Café Gratitude — their first vegan venture, with several outlets in the Bay Area. I wasn’t a huge fan; we found the food rather bland, but I know that many found these cafés a necessity in the Bay Area.

Unfortunately, controversy has surrounded the Engleharts’ businesses for years now. First, employees of the Café Gratitude outposts alleged that they had been made to feel uncomfortable or even discriminated against for not buying into or participating in an Est-based program, Landmark Education — a sort of self-empowering, self-transformative curriculum — that the company supposedly pushed onto its employees. Then, the Engleharts faced several lawsuits from current and former employees, alleging illegal employment practices. Rather than fighting those lawsuits, the Engleharts chose to close all their Bay Area restaurants, but kept Gracias Madre.

Today, they own several Café Gratitudes in Los Angeles. But, once again, the Engleharts seem to be navigating choppy waters. Apparently, in 2015, they announced on their blog that they were now sustainably raising livestock and selling meat on their ranch, Be Love Farm, and had personally resumed eating animals. Vegans in Los Angeles and San Francisco were up in arms, and while many swore off the restaurants, it doesn’t appear to have hurt them at Gracias Madre.

I didn’t know about the meat controversy when we first ate here, and there are no meat items available on the Mission menu.

On my first visit, I took a girlfriend to check the place out to see if I could convince the BF to come with me next time. My friend ordered a Bloody Maria, made with a tequila-infused sake, which for me had an odd flavor, almost medicinal. I went with the sangria and was well pleased.

We started out with the gorditas.

Gorditas.

A gordita is a type of masa pastry stuffed with cheese, meat or veggies. GM’s was made with potato mixed into the masa, and was insanely delicious, drizzled with their cashew crema (all their milks and cheeses are nut-based) and topped with avocado — like a Mexican potato pancake. I wanted to swim in that crema. Great start!

My friend ordered the flautas:

Flautas.

Topped with guacamole and nacho cashew cheese, the flautas — “flutes” — were stuffed with sweet potatoes and caramelized onions, and were my second favorite item of the night. Even the accompanying escabeche (pickled veggies) was well executed — not too vinegary, which is always my complaint with escabeche.

I ordered the special of the evening — sopes:

Sopes special.

A sope is a fat disk of masa, like a dense, double-thick tortilla, topped with meat, cheese and/or vegetables. Here, it came with tempeh (a meat substitute made with soy) chorizo, pico de gallo, and more of that cashew crema. They were quite tasty, but a pineapple salsa made the whole dish a bit sweet and rather tempered my enthusiasm for them. Still, tasty, and the accompanying black beans were absolutely killer.

Still feeling a bit peckish, we ordered totopos — tortilla chips. We didn’t get guacamole, but ate them with their green and red salsas — both of which were very good with a nice amount of heat. The chips are the best I’ve had in ages. Thick-cut, yet light and crispy, tasting very much like they had been freshly fried. In truth, I could have made a dinner of the gorditas, the chips, and those black beans and been a happy camper. Good first visit.

For my second visit with the BF, things started out a bit rocky. We ordered our food, and five minutes later it all came out at once, which leads one to believe it’s all pre-cooked. Since we were sitting at the bar, this made for a very crowded counter. No one seemed to bat an eye that we suddenly had six dishes before us.

We got an order of totopos and guacamole.

Totopos and Guacamole.

Those chips alone are worth the price of admission. I also enjoyed my refreshing, faux-ish margarita (tequila-infused sake) — but, though it was billed as a jalapeño  margarita, there was no hint of heat.

Jalapeño margarita.

We split a Caesar salad.

Caesar Salad.

Now, the Caesar is a genius of a salad, balancing salty anchovies and garlic with the fresh coolness of crunchy lettuce. And knowing that it was invented in Mexico, I was disappointed that Gracias Madre could not nail this dish. Theirs was simply odd — it needed salt or acid, and had a ton of avocado in it — which is certainly not traditional. I love avocado, and I know they were using it instead of the typical raw egg to thicken the dressing so that it stuck to the greens better, but this just wasn’t a Caesar. And it really needed something. Flavor, I believe.

Happily, the BF really liked his dish:

Mole enchilada.

He got a tender enchilada with potatoes inside, drizzled with crema and a deeply chocolatey mole sauce. I thought it was excellent. His sautéed kale was garlicky, and his black beans were as good the last time I’d had them.

We also split an order of fried cauliflower:

Cauliflower with cashew cheese.

Napped in a chipotle cashew cheese sauce, this was another dish I’d have again. Light and creamy, with a crispy texture, this was good bar food.

For my main, I ordered the red ancho chile posole:

Posole.

Wow. Some of the best I’ve ever had, and with no pork! It was a bit light on the hominy, however, which I thought was a tad strange, since that’s what posole is all about. Instead, there was a lot of cabbage and crunchy tortilla strips, topped with that cashew crema. The broth was rich and smoky, and again, contained a good amount of cooling avocado. I took almost all of it home, though, as it was a huge bowl. I’d definitely order this again.

And, for science, we ordered a small dish of “coconut bacon.”

Coconut bacon.

I don’t really think they’re trying to fool anyone into thinking it’s an actual bacon substitute, which is a good thing. They toss the coconut chips with paprika and cayenne and then bake them. It is apparently just a condiment but we both found it boring in the extreme, and, after a pinch, left it behind.

Service on both occasions was pretty lackadaisical, I’m sorry to say. They seem to just be so busy they don’t really care to connect with their customers. I’d asked our server to explain the preparation of the coconut bacon to me, and she didn’t know but said she’d ask, but never got back to me with an answer (I ended up asking someone else). And, even though we sat at the bar, our servers seemed to be more interested in talking to each other than really paying attention to their customers. The BF said they probably just needed to eat a good burger.

But I’m happy he liked his meat-free dinner, and yes, I would go back. The BF said if he ever had to feed a vegan, he would take them there.

I’m hoping that Gracias Madre changes up their menu now and again, and that they value their employees from here on out, and maybe train them a little on customer service. As for their return to eating meat, I’d be curious to see if they ever incorporate it into the menu here, or if they plan on opening a carnivorous eatery next. In the meantime, Gracias Madre is the Mission’s only fully vegan restaurant, and it’s quite a good one.

Gracias Madre
2211 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94110

415-638-1346
http:/gracias-madre.com/