To eat at Gracias Madre is to show everyone on Mission Street that you 1) don’t know your way around the neighbourhood at all 2) have depressingly ill-functioning taste buds 3) exhibit a general sense of poor judgment. If you did know La Mission even minutely, or just took a second look around 18th to see what’s there (Farina Pizza, Balompie Cafe, Mission Chinese Food, any of the hundred other taquerias dotting every street in the area), you would never have settled for spending a cool $40 on San Francisco’s most underwhelming vegan/organic/non-GMO food.
Although the intersection of vegetarian and Hispanic cuisines is tenuous at best (try explaining the concept of “veganism” to the rushed clerk at El Farolito and see just how well that goes) it’s really no excuse for subpar food. London chain Wahaca boasts a stunning array of flavourful, accidentally vegetarian dishes– plantain tacos drenched in smooth chipotle sauce, tenderstem broccoli kissed with garlic and chilli oil, black bean tostadas brightly brimming with salsa –and does so without the geographical advantage of Mexico mere hours away. Even Flacos in Berkeley manages to cobble together a decent Mexican impression, despite its dependence on that real-but-not-real-enough soy chicken that scares people away from Vegetarianism. It’s completely possible to make good Mexican food without meat, because Mexican flavour is defined by the spices, not by what is spiced. Whatever you eat should pack a punch, be it salty, spicy, savoury, or even just HOT. Mexican food is food with intent and every bite should convey said intent.
Absolutely nothing at Gracias Madre came off as mildly impressive, despite an exciting first impression. Its menu was lengthy, power-packed with so many dishes it was almost overwhelming, and promised enough veggies to make a vegan shed a few tears of joy. Hell, even I was hard-pressed to narrow my taco selection between seasonal greens, grilled zucchini, or farm-fresh broccoli and I can’t remember the last time I ate something green that wasn’t tempura fried to death. Said tacos (3 for $13, accompanied with a side of beans) proved an absolute snooze despite enticing fillings: a sampler of Greens, Hongos (mushrooms), and Platanos (plantains — a faintly savoury banana cousin held as a versatile delicacy in Central and South America, as well as in Caribbean cuisines).
Such ineptitude is particularly striking given the two moments of brilliance Gracias’ menu does exhibit. First, the “Gorditas” ($8) a pleasantly delicious fried potato surprise, despite being the colour of a grayish-brown mush. Each small round was warm, savoury, fried to a crisp outside and yielding to soft, well-salted potato masa inside. Atop each lay a small mountain of warm salsa verde, cool avocado slices and cashew crema, all working in tandem for a flavourful fiesta. Second, the meal’s only one true star– Orange Chipotle Soda ($4), an artful amalgam of fresh citrus and smoky chipotle notes that I still desperately crave several days later. It’s a genius use of chipotle, a dried jalapeño known for its rich flavour but often shoved into sauces as a last-ditch spicing method. Here, it shines, and it hurts to think see such innovative potential from a restaurant that completely drops the ball in later courses.The taco platter held so much potential, especially given the fabulous renditions I’d had of tacos platanos y tacos hongos elsewhere. Where Breddos, allegedly London’s best taco outfit, served sleekly shredded chestnut mushrooms so richly flavoured they could pass for beef after several pints, Gracias Madre served clunky cap mushrooms that were both difficult to eat gracefully and exceedingly plain. Where Wahaca caramelized plantain hunks to a deep golden brown crisp and deftly engaged the fruit’s delicate sweetness, Gracias Madre slathered their slices in “cashew crema” and enough cilantro to make you forget the point was plantain to begin with. Therein lies the true travesty of the meal — nothing was particularly bad, save for seasonal greens so bitter they were almost inedible, but nothing was particularly good. Cashew crema was silky and inoffensive, albeit completely negligible; the intriguingly named “coconut bacon” ($3 for a bowl the size of a small fist) tasted neither of coconut or bacon, merely salt and oil; and even the tortillas basing each taco were undersalted. Did you know tortillas could be undersalted? I certainly did not. (Although the second I realised they were an unappealing chocolate brown colour I should’ve jumped ship).
I almost can’t decide if Gracias Madre is just a giant, built-in marketing ploy of poor cuisine caricatures, or if it legitimately believes itself to be innovating past all the other taquerias in the Mission. The longer I stare at the $20 plus dollar Virgin Mary emblazoned t-shirts on sale (“pure Capitalistic sacrilege,” as per my Catholic mother), while the German tourists next to me explain how this food is “so awesome” compared to their sole Mexican place in Berlin, the more i’m tending towards the former. Gracias Madre doesn’t particularly need to be a stellar taqueria to keep itself afloat– it’s selling an experience truly unlike anywhere else in Mission. It’s healthy, it’s vegan …it’s cleaner than fly-ridden taquerias with peeled paint walls and there will always be a market for hip, upscale updates on an old cuisine.
Should there be? No. I’ve had exponentially better food down the street at Taqueria el Buen Sabor and I will take their sloppy tofu tacos over anything on Gracias Madre’s menu any day. Perhaps elsewhere– say, in the middle of Berlin with only one Mexican competitor, or in my Central Valley hometown with it’s meager vegan options –such a bland restaurant would be passable merely for the sake of desperation. But in San Francisco, surrounded with infinitely better options, there’s no reason for a meal that will leave you emptier than a store bought taco shell.
2211 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Credit Cards: All major cards accepted
Drinks: $3-8 for non-alcoholic, $5-$8 for beers/cocktails, $7-9 for wines
Atmosphere: Average, punctuated by ill-fitting ’80s pop
Service: Slow, but polite. As middle of the road as the food.