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Politically Correct Mexican Food

Being a vegetarian, or God forbid, a vegan, and a lover of Mexican food can really suck. In San Francisco you’ll be hard-pressed to find a taqueria where you can dine without your hair and clothing becoming saturated with aromatic meat grease from sizzling carne asada. And though a lot of places say they don’t use lard in their refried beans, can you really trust them?

Judging from its packed tables and glowing Yelp reviews, Gracias Madre, a vegan and organic Mexican food restaurant, is a bonanza for a generous chunk of the population. Located in the Mission District, right on taqueria-dense Mission Street, it makes its “cheese” out of soaked, ground cashew nuts, and substitutes things like mushrooms and butternut squash for meat. Its vegetables come from local farms.

The restaurant was opened last December by the same people who run a string of New Age–y vegan restaurants called Café Gratitude, the very name of which inspires a reaction of severe discomfort for many. At these restaurants, each dish is named after an affirmation, so you’re tricked into blessing yourself when ordering (e.g., I Am Festive).

Luckily Gracias Madre doesn’t have a self-empowerment component, but you are required to sit at communal tables, which seemed to make the chaotic service even more confused. Half of our order landed before the people beside us, who breathed over it and moved it around confusedly with their forks for a good 10 minutes before our extremely sweet and chipper server clued into the mistake and made moves to fix it.

A lot of effort and artistry went into the décor of Gracias Madre: a gorgeous wrought iron entrance gate with a corn design, nice hardwood floors, a gracious haciendalike interior with robin’s-egg-blue walls. The food, however, had the ho-hum feel of an adequately cooked veggie weeknight meal at home. Mushroom-mole enchiladas had a one-dimensional sweet mole sauce and a strange open-faced construction where the mushroom filling sat on top of the tortilla, rather than being rolled inside. Accompanying sautéed kale with pepitas was fine and healthy but nothing special. Nopales cactus with cashew crema, rice, and beans was a wash of pleasant but unexciting mushy saltiness, brightened up by a fun salsa with crunchy cucumber chunks and some toothsome, handmade corn tortillas.

The standouts of the meal were the elote (nicely charred barbecued corn on the cob rubbed with garlic, chipotle crema, and cilantro), and the horchata (cinnamon-laced homemade rice milk that tasted like rice pudding in a glass). It is nice to know that you’re eating locally sourced vegetables, and that they were farmed organically. But I generally don’t eat out just for the benefit of my conscience. I personally know some good people who swear by Gracias Madre. They are vegans. Enough said.