Anchored in the heart of San Francisco’s unofficial Hispanic food district, is an unlikely vegan restaurant that has withstood the test of time, controversy, and continued complaints of mediocre service. How? The secret is simple: good food and a worthy mission.
Gracias Madre, which has won a place in the hearts of locals and visitors alike, continues to deliver on flavorful vegan Mexican food and a commitment to taking care of the Earth. In place of meat and cheese, jackfruit and cashew cream make up the menu. And the same spice and bold favors that make its main dishes shine are what make this Mexican restaurant worth the trip.
Now in its 13th year, the restaurant not only made it out of the pandemic in tact, it managed to maintain its charm despite the ever-crumbling atmosphere surrounding it.
Before Gracias Madre came on the scene, there were few—if any—vegan Mexican concepts in the Bay Area. Vegan was far from mainstream, and founders Terces and Matthew Englehart, who at the time ran Cafe Gratitude — a vegan restaurant with several Bay Area outlets — were on a mission to change that. At the time, the Engleharts lived on their ranch, called “Be Love Farm,” where they experimented with Mexican recipes made with farm-grown produce and hand-ground corn tortillas. It was then that they professed a “lifelong love” of Mexican food, and believed the flavors and staple ingredients of Mexican cuisine lended themselves perfectly to plant-based food.
The couple opened Gracias Madre in 2009 in the city’s Mission district. The opening coincided with an uptick in popularity around the plant-based food movement, and San Franciscans were eager to try the buzzy new vegan concept.
At the opening, the Engleharts said Gracia Madres embodied a “true expression” of who the couple is and what they value. “It represents our deep love and reverse for food, our commitment to health and sustainability, our unconditional love for our multicultural family and community, our devotion to the East and the divine feminine, and our commitment to raising consciousness on the planet,” they said.
While seemingly noble, this “commitment to raising conciseness” has landed the coupled in a series of controversial lawsuits with employees and bad press over the years. Employees of the Englehart’s Cafe Gratitude chain alleged illegal employment practices and complained of being forced into self-empowering, self-transformative educational programs. While no employee complaints were against at Gracias Madre, the owners did face heat from the vegan community in 2015 when they announced that they were sustainably raising livestock and selling meat from Be Love Farm. The couple also said that they had personally resumed eating animals.
Despite the controversy and any vegan’s concerns about the owner’s perceived hypocrisy, the restaurant remains popular, and even boasts a second location in Los Angeles.
Regardless of the owner’s own decision to eat (local, sustainably raised) meat or not, Gracias Madre’s core mission and commitment to sustainability in the form of vegan food remains strong. While you might be led to believe that “Gracias Madre” is an expression of religiously-rooted gratitude for the Virgin Mary—whose image is prominently displayed throughout the establishment—it’s actually a nod to Mother Earth and the feminine surrounding it.
Beyond being strictly plant-based, all ingredients used on the menu are also gluten-free, non-GMO, and organic. And of the ingredients are hyper-local—traveling only as far as the owner’s farm. Most of the ingredients — with staples such as beans, rice, corn, and a multitude for veggies— are actually easy to grow locally, and all lend themselves really well to vegan food. Not to mention all the spices that give Mexican food so much flavor, including cumin, cilantro, palo santo, and hot chilies. Cashews to be an excellent substitute for the cheese and cream, while a multitude of veggies, like well-seasoned cauliflower, sweet potatoes, plantains, and jackfruit, offer a great alternative to meats.
Storytelling throughout the restaurant, most prominently displayed on the menu, preaches the intentionality of the food sourcing and its greater impact on the Earth. “It is our intention that the emphasis we place on the sourcing of our food will bring conciseness in a the community to the importance of sustainability and of buying and selling locally grown organic food,” said Terces.
The hope is that through eating an excellent vegan meal, patrons will see that they don’t have to miss much with more plants and less meat in their everyday diets.
If inspiring more plant-based diets through delicious food is the mission, then Gracias Madre certainly delivers on that. The quality of ingredients and dedication to bold Mexican flavors clearly come through many of the restaurant’s dishes, and most have a spice kick that pack just the right amount of punch.
My favorite dishes include the pozole, crispy cauliflower in cashew cheese sauce, and the tacos. The posole is made with a red ancho chili broth that has a heat that continues to build as you eat it, which is cooled by a generous amount of avocado and a drizzling of cashew cream.
The tacos come in three to order and can be customized with a choice of six fillings, including a garlicky sautéed kale, lightly fried plantains, and carnitas-style jackfruit. All are topped with shredded cabbage and veggies and can be punched up with the house-made red and green salsas and every table.
Unfortunately, the service doesn’t live up to the food. It’s slow and disorganized, and no one seems genuinely interested in helping you out. They can often be seen taking breaks, even when the restaurant is crowded and busy. Additionally, it can be challenging to find a good seat on a popular weeknight or weekend, and reservations are recommended.
Still, if you go in during the right time and with low expectations of the service, you’ll likely have a great experience. The indoor space is cozy and inviting, with long, communal tables and soft lighting. The outdoor patio, which you enter through handsome iron gates, has an enormous, colorful mosaic of the Virgin Mary and small tables perfect for parties of two and four.
If it keeps up the good eats, it’ll likely become a staple of the Mission District, which has more good Mexican spots than any other neighborhood in San Francisco, but none as creatively and sustainably inclined as Gracias Madre.
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