Over the spring break, I was fortunate enough to visit my favourite city: San Francisco. I actually used to live there for about three years but my family never quite explored the city and saw all that it had to offer. So on this trip, we did it all and enjoyed the various wonderful things that make up San Francisco. One of these key components that differentiate it from other cities is the amazing variety of quality food available for all: regardless of location, price range, dietary restrictions, and previous food knowledge or experience. I decided to take advantage of this opportunity and researched a restaurant in San Francisco that I believed my family and I would enjoy in order to review it for Youth Are Awesome! While researching, really my only criteria was a place that served vegetarian dishes as my family and I are all vegetarian and have been for quite some time. Other than that, I was open to any cuisine and style of food. Along with the always trustworthy help of trip adviser, as well as several other articles and food blogs, I came across a lively restaurant by the name of Gracias Madre, located in the Mission district. I knew that Mission was well known amongst many foodies as quite the food and cultural hub so I had high hopes for this restaurant.
According to their website, Gracias Madre serves authentic and flavourful Mexican cuisine with a little twist: everything is vegan. I know, I know, for many people when they hear the word “vegan” it’s an immediate deal breaker as frightful images of tofurkey, kale, and chia seeds flash before their eyes. However for my family and I, when the word vegan is used in describing a restaurant, it’s so exciting because it means you can have anything! No mentions of “please hold the chicken” or “does that have meat in it?” because everything is fair game for vegetarians in vegan restaurants and that is exactly what Gracias Madre is trying to do. The founder of the restaurant, Terces Engelheart, just wanted to create a place where everyone can enjoy delicious, organic, Mexican cuisine without any restrictions. After all, their “mission is to spread love”. I was completely sold. So on the big day I headed to the restaurant with my family, stomach empty and ready to be stuffed, and camera in tow to enjoy my first authentic vegan Mexican meal. To best illustrate my experience at Gracias Madre, I have decided to split my impression of the restaurant into 3 essential components:
Gracias Madre has a very distinct and original ambiance and I fell in love with it as soon as I walked through the door. Even from the outside, you can tell that something is different about this restaurant. To enter, you pass through the well lit patio seating area, complete with rustic picnic style tables and a tile mural of the original “madre”, Mary. As we walk in the restaurant, a lovely gentleman in an eccentric blue suit serenades us with live, rhythmic, and melodious Spanish ballads. While I eat, I just marvel at the numerous and diverse works of Mexican art displayed all around the restaurant. At the back, an open kitchen with elegant glass panes allows the exquisite aromas to waft all around the building. Together, all of these elements combine to form the perfect environment to enjoy amazing food. My only issue was the lighting inside the restaurant, because at times it seemed a little to dim for my liking. Other than that, the ambiance of the restaurant only added to the overall experience at Gracias Madre. 9/10
The service at Gracias Madre was absolutely wonderful. Our server, Hannah, was friendly and sweet, and kindly offered her personal recommendations from the menu. She continually came to check on to see how we liked the food, if we needed more water, how we were doing, etc. It was always easy to catch the attention of a waiter, and they were all approachable and easy to talk to. My only criticism would be that the food didn’t reach us as fast as maybe I’d hoped, but that could have just been my perception of things as I was quite hungry! Additionally, everything we ordered was made from scratch and freshly prepared so I understand that to achieve that sort of quality and authenticity in food takes a little time, but is completely worth the wait. 9.5/10
We started off with the Coliflor Fritos as an appetizer. The dish is essentially flash fried cauliflower lightly coated in a nacho “cheese” sauce. Of course, as milk is an animal product, this sauce was not based on cheese but instead, cashews to give it that same creamy and salty taste. Although the sauce didn’t taste exactly like cheese, the dish was still absolutely incredible. The cauliflower was crisp and crunchy, yet not oily, and fried just the perfect amount. The sauce was creamy and flavourful, hints of tangy lime perfectly complimenting the spices in the cauliflower.
As a main dish, my little sister and dad ordered the Quesadilla de Chorizo. Traditionally, chorizo is a spicy pork sausage utilized in many Latin American cuisines. However, instead of pork, this quesadilla consisted of a rich blend of sauteed potato and tempeh (a soy based meat substitute), seasoned with aromatic spices and encased in a fresh tortilla drenched in sour cream and guacamole. Although I only managed to steal a bite or two out of this one, it was absolutely delightful. In the past, I’ve never really had very good experiences with tempeh as it was always a little too chewy for my liking. However, somehow the cooks at Gracias Madre had worked their magic again and were able to make the tempeh tender and soft. Paired with the soft tortilla and the delicious sauces, this dish was absolutely delightful.
For my entree, I ordered the Pesto and Black Bean Torta. A torta is a traditional Mexican sandwich typically filled with jalapeños, various meats, avocados, onions, and tomatoes. This torta however consisted of creamy black beans, zesty almond and cilantro pesto, lettuce, avocado, fresh pico de gallo, roasted red peppers, and savoury cashew cheese, all served on toasted ciabatta with delectable escabeche. I absolutely loved this dish as it essentially combined all of my favourite things into one incredible sandwich. Although it looked like a large serving, the sandwich was refreshing and light, leaving me wanting more. If there was one thing that it could improve on however, it would maybe be adjusting the black bean to avocado ratio as the avocado was a little overpowering, but other than that, the torta was a real treat!
Lastly, my mom was a lucky woman because she ordered possibly the best dish on the menu, and that is the Bowl Uno. The bowl wasn’t anything super fancy, but I think the simplicity is what really made the dish special. Black beans, brown rice, romaine lettuce, tangy pico de gallo, copious amounts of cilantro, fresh guacamole, and tempeh chorizo, all mixed up into one heavenly bowl, topped with spicy chipotle sauce and a sprinkling of toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds). Again, although I only got a few mouthfuls of the dish, it was absolutely bursting with varied and distinct flavours. I think the organic and local sourcing of the ingredients was really apparent in this dish in particular as everything was just so fresh and unlike anything I’ve ever tasted.
Overall, I think I would give the food a full 10/10 rating as I don’t think there was a single dish I didn’t thoroughly enjoy. Each and every item that we ordered was unique, authentic, freshly prepared, and abundant with flavour. Another thing I really enjoyed was how beautifully every thing was plated, really adding to the aesthetic of the restaurant and the originality of the food. Lastly, I think my favourite thing in the food aspect of Gracias Madre was how light and refreshing all of the dishes were. I ate a lot of food that day, and yet at the end of it, I didn’t feel stuffed or as if I were to drift into a food induced coma, but rather quite refreshed and ready for what the rest of the day had to offer.
All in all, I think Gracias Madre was an experience like no other. The uniqueness and originality of the ambiance was unimaginable, the hospitality and kindness of the service unbelievable, and the authenticity and flavour of the food unbeatable. I think I speak for my whole family when I say I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and without a doubt would go again if I have a chance. So if you’re ever in the San Francisco area, spread the love and give Gracias Madre a try, I promise you won’t regret it.
*All photos taken by me*