Gracias Madre: The mother of Mexican food shows us what she’s made of

Posted on: 13th Mar 2013

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Walking into Gracias Madre in the thick of the Mission District, you might think you’ve stumbled into a private event: everyone’s sitting around large wooden tables, six or eight or ten to each, knocking elbows. But when you take a closer look, you realize elbows are only lightly touching, and disparate groups are simply sitting companionably together, sharing space. There’s plenty of it – and the food, it seems, is too good for it to matter anyway.

The menu is a firm nod toward Mexican fare without succumbing to its typical tropes. There are no beefy burritos or cheese-laden nachos, but there are warm squash and bean-filled tortillas adorned with a creamy cashew-based sauce and toasted pepitas, piqued with caramelized onions and a toasty pumpkin-seed salsa. The mole and beans are rich and meaty, and the sautéed mushrooms and greens that accompany certain dishes taste vibrant and are not overshadowed by the rest – they’re more than just sides.

If this sounds particularly gourmet, well, it is and it isn’t. Matthew and Terces Engelhart use simple and fresh ingredients, the best of local organic fare, and showcase the unique features of each with a Mexican flair.

The ingredients aren’t complicated – house-ground corn for soft tortillas, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, black beans, avocado – but Matthew and Terces know just what to do with them to make them as satisfying as they can be. Oh – the other thing? The menu is entirely vegan. It’s not a secret about the place, but it’s a detail that is easily overlooked amid the wealth and heartiness of the food.

One particular challenge that a vegan Mexican restaurant might face is the replacement of cheese. The chefs, however, have found an incredibly flavorful substitute in their cashew cheese sauce. Its texture and consistency aren’t far from that of many Mexican lovers’ staple queso – the sauce is thick enough to coat the inside and outside of a corn tortilla – and, even better, the cashew version lacks the stringy and rubbery qualities of both melted cheese and queso once cool. (Leftovers make for a great cool dip or spread that retains its flavor.) Besides, in using a creamy sauce that coats rather than smothers the rest of the meal as melted cheese, the rest of the ingredients are still in the spotlight.

In terms of desserts, they’ve got the staples: flan, Mexican wedding cookies, and an excellent spiced chocolate cake. But the surprise and delight of the dessert menu is the apple-pear cobbler: the fruit is spiced but still tastes fresh, sweet with syrup without sticking with other cobblers’ characteristic cornstarch-thickened interior.

It’s enough to make you forget that the cinnamon-sugar-dusted topping is actually a puffed and warmed tortilla, like a light elephant ear blanketing the filling. Honestly, it may be even better than what your average baking mama makes, but you can say Gracias Madre anyway.