If you hadn't heard about Gracias Madre — you're not plugged in to vegetarian circles, say, or you're past the age of 30 — and you found yourself meandering down Mission Street on a Friday night, chances are you'd be struck by the look of the place and wander inside. Everything you'd spy would be promising. The wrought-iron field of corn that stretches across the entryway. The enclosed patio, with its 10-foot mosaic of the Virgin, arms outstretched to soak in the warmth of the heat lamps. The raw pine tables and multicolored ceramic tiles inside. The cook pinching off balls of masa and pressing them into tortillas, the griddle next to her constantly covered in pale brown rounds. It's rare to find microbrews and mariachi singers in the same room. And when you pick up a menu, you'll notice something even rarer: a Mexican menu free of the sacred presence of pork. And chicken. Egg and sour cream, too.
Gracias Madre opened at the end of December and soon set off my popularity alerts (the exact algorithm is patented, but involves blog spikes and "What have you heard about ... " e-mails from acquaintances). By rights, I should have paid a visit to Gracias Madre a couple of months sooner. I had a few hangups to get over first.
Not the veganism, which, after all, is the largest populist food movement to sweep America since the reign of Dr. Atkins. Every dairy-free, egg-free cupcake that makes it onto the market — and there are a lot these days — gets pounced on by a new model army of Skinny Bitch in the Kitch readers and "hegans" (the Boston Globe's newly coined slang for manly, health-conscious vegans). Restaurant critics ignore vegans under peril of obsolescence.
No, I had to get past the fact that Gracias Madre is a spinoff of Cafe Gratitude.
In the early days of Matthew and Terces Engelhart's raw-food restaurant, I fell for its rambling 1970s-style decor, its menu of dehydrated-seed "nachos" and dried-tomato and cashew-cheese "pizzas," even the way all the dishes were named "I am [affirmative adjective]." I always walked out feeling like I'd snarfed the contents of a CSA box, counteracting weeks of carnitas tacos and almond croissants. As Cafe Gratitude turned into a chain, though, the prices almost doubled and the affirmation shtick grew wearisome.
When faced by the prospect of Cafe Gratitude, Mexican edition, I was put off by the thought of ordering "Soy intuitivo" tamales and exhortations to "Exprese la gratitud!" from servers who weren't doing much to earn mine. Then veg friends who had stopped going to Gratitude for the same reasons started telling me how much they'd enjoyed their meals at Gracias Madre. They were quick to mention that the Engelharts' beliefs, which a series of investigative reports had revealed to be based on the Landmark Forum philosophy, had disappeared into the background.
So I made an exploratory trip. Then went back. After three visits, I wouldn't call myself a lover, but I get the Madre love. Gracias Madre fills a niche — affordable, healthful vegan Mexican food made with organic, local ingredients — and does it fairly well. The inconsistencies that occur have everything to do with seasoning, or the season itself, and little to do with the cooks' vision of what vegan Mexican food should taste like.
The Engelharts and their cooks have put together a short, interlocking menu that is currently centered on the vegetables of late winter and early spring, such as kale, squash, mushrooms, and asparagus. This quartet is stuffed into the enchiladas and tamales, folded into the tacos, and presented as sides. Many of the ingredients, the menu claims, come from the owners' Biodynamic Be Love garden in Pleasant Valley. Reassuringly for us Gratitude ex-fans, the dishes have straightforward names, and the waiters, all lovely, practice without preaching. Oh, and if you're worried about the whole price-per-pound-gained ratio, don't: I rolled out stuffed every time.
The taco plate ($11) presented a vegetable sampler — sweet roasted butternut squash, garlicky sautéed mushrooms whose juices concentrated as they cooked down, grilled asparagus dusted with cumin — each on its own tortilla and decorated with a tart squiggle of cashew crema. The tacos came with well-seasoned refried black beans and a heap of escabeche, searingly vinegared carrots, onions, and cauliflower. And what tortillas! They were made from a nutty, dark-skinned heirloom corn that made the masa look like it was heavily seasoned with black pepper. On one visit, I ordered a scoop of guacamole ($6), perhaps the only item on the menu that didn't require veganification, just to work my way through a basket of the warm, soft rounds.
For the quesadillas ($8), one of the restaurant's best dishes, just-pressed tortilla dough was folded around creamy, roasted butternut squash; caramelized onions; and cashew cheese. (The tangy "cheese," which is made of soaked raw cashews whizzed up into a loose white sauce, appears in 90 percent of the dishes. Tasting more like sour cream than cheddar, the innocuous purée adds a light, tart note and some richness to everything it coats.) The quesadillas were pan-fried until the shells crisped, then slathered over in a deep, toasty pumpkin-seed sauce.
A couple of dishes tried too hard. The chile relleno ($15) was simply a pair of roasted, peeled poblanos filled with watery, underseasoned squash; it wanted some time in a deep fryer and a proper tomato-chile sauce. The tamal ($11) also suffered under its own healthfulness; the rubbery cake needed some Crisco whipped into the masa to lighten and moisten it up. And if you're contemplating an $8 glass of horchata listed on the menu, don't let the waiter sell you on the fact that the drink is made with housemade almond milk — strap a flask of horchata-flavored Rice Dream to your leg, which tastes just as good at a quarter of the price. Or stick to beer.
A few of the dishes needed only small corrections, such as the rajas ($5 as a side), one of the few traditional taco fillings vegetarians have learned to look for on taqueria menus. The sole substitution Gracias Madre's cooks made was the cashew cream to bind the sautéed strips of roasted poblano, onion, and garlic; it would have worked had they cooked the vegetables together long enough to let their flavors meld. Same with the undercooked cauliflower with "queso fundido" ($8), a gratin of cauliflower and cashew cream — the vegans sure do love their dairy substitutes — sprinkled with smoked-chile powder.
But the vegan posole ($6), the chickpea-hominy broth redolent with earthy-sweet dried chiles and sharpened with a squirt of lime, was excellent. So was the lightly sautéed kale ($5), toasted pumpkin seeds scattered across the frilly green leaves. The seeds' fragile, almost meaty crunch also brought together the flavors on the tostada ($5): the thick layer of black beans, the lettuce and sautéed squash, more cashew crema.
Like most of Gracias Madre's dishes, the tostada was sturdy and far from bland — the kind of food you'd imagine was dreamed up by Moosewood Cookbook–toting hippies wintering on the Oaxacan coast. I suspect the menu will get even better as the season of tomatoes, corn, and fresh chiles, with all their flashy summer flavors, comes around. In the end, it's possible to enjoy Gracias Madre's food while setting aside all questions of authenticity, health benefits, or philosophy. Which is something to be grateful for.