Review By: Lisa Mazzocco -
When you come across a depiction of the Virgin Mary in SF’s infamous Mission District, it’s likely one of three things:
1. An activist artist recreating a controversial scene from Glee
2. An unremitting Hispanic grandmother trying to purify an activist artist who is recreating a controversial scene from Glee
3. A humble outpost serving what is certainly the most authentic interpretation of Mexican food: vegan
Gracias Madre isn’t afraid to bring its own twist to the fiesta. But if you’re willing to set the carne asada aside, you might admit you’re glad that you side-stepped the crack dealers at the BART station and persevered through the stench of urine along Mission Street to get there – that is, if your stomach is conditioned to handle cheese substitutes.
It’s not that Gracias Madre is doing anything especially wrong; in fact, there’s a lot they do right. At most Mexican restaurants I find an inverse relationship between the obnoxiousness of décor and the care given to the food – so conclude what you will from the fact that GM’s interior is smooth, rustic, and in reassuring contrast to some neighboring establishments, clean. The host stand lives in the middle of the space, a subtle invitation to come deeper inside and make yourself at home, and oh, if they happen to be busy, wouldn’t it just be easier to wait at the generously spacious bar than to go all the way back outside.
But, no need for that diversion on my visit – at 1pm on a sunny Saturday afternoon, there was no wait for a table for two (in fact, there was so little wait they sat us somewhat awkwardly at a table for six). This was a little surprising, since I’d heard chatter about GM more than once; but, it being on the other side of peak lunch hour, I decided reading into that might be unfair. Judgment should center on the main event: the food.
Like its interior design, GM’s menu blueprint is atypically simple for Mexican: rather than trying to please patrons with infinite taco permutations, they select a handful of classics, do them one way, and do them well. Our dishes rested before us within 15 minutes of ordering, colorful arrangements with a surprisingly generous amount of food, with no dissuading signs of obvious veganism.
The recurring theme in GM’s food can be summarized in one word: balance. I started with the horchata latte; I was afraid I’d get halfway through and meet my sugar quota for the week, but instead, I cheerily polished off the iced blend of (non-dairy) milk, coffee, agave, and light spices without feeling weighed down. The green of the day was kale, happily speckled with pepitas and sautéed enough that it wrapped nicely around a fork – but not so much that excess oil became an exercise in dabbing the chin. In my enchiladas, the ratio of sauce to tortilla was measured to perfection; there was just enough that every bite got a share of mole, without the last few collapsing in sogginess. The only let-down was the beans, which were blended to a thoughtfully smooth texture, but decidedly dry and bland. This being the only real protein, I would have hope for a little more spice and imagination.
The bill came to about $45 for two non-alcoholic drinks and two mains – reasonable, especially given it kept me satiated for the next six hours. I did get a funky feeling in my stomach about four hours after the meal. It’s unclear if this was due to the cashew cheese, or to the sudden realization I may have left my straightener on and burned down my apartment (thankfully I had not).
Would I recommend Gracias Madre? Yes, but in the same way I’d recommend visiting Mexico itself: worth checking out, but if someone suggests an encore trip, remind them “en la variedad está el gusto” – variety is the spice of life.
Photo Credit: Keepinitkind.com