Gracias Madre: Gratefully vegan Mexican Food in San Francisco’s Mission District

Photo courtesy Gracias Madre: gracias-madre.com

Family style tables in a comforting, cozy atmosphere at Gracias Madre in the Mission District. Photo courtesy Gracias Madre: gracias-madre.com

Looking for great Mexican food in San Francisco? Head to Gracias Madre in the Mission District.

Gracias Madre sits in an area that’s filled with small taco shops, panaderias, and family-owned Mexican restaurants. Like its neighbors, Gracias Madre caters to those who want the flavors of traditional Mexican dishes  — enchiladas, empanadas, tamales, and quesadillas. But unlike other Mexican restaurants in San Francisco’s Mission District, Gracias Madre’s cuisine is all vegan and organic.

Vegan Mexican cuisine

Terces and Matthew Engelhart, the couple behind Mission-based Café Gratitude (which is now closed, but the restaurant still operates in a cherished Berkeley location) came up with the idea of opening a Mexican restaurant because they wanted to offer Mexican cuisine in a community that was rich in culture but lacking in healthy options. Gracias Madre’s food is authentic, but it’s also non-GMO and good for you.

While Terces and Matthew may be the brains behind Gracias Madre, the heart of the restaurant is rooted in a collective commitment to food as life – and love. The entire Gracias Madre team, from the hosts and servers to the bartenders and cooks, devotes itself to providing nourishing fare for locals and for visitors who flock to the vibrant Mission District.

The Gracias Madre team says that their cuisine is an “expression of who we are – it represents our deep love of and reverence for food, our commitment to health and sustainability, our unconditional love for our multicultural family and community, our devotion to the Earth and the divine feminine, and our commitment to raising the consciousness of the planet.”

Comforting atmosphere

When you step foot into Gracias Madre’s front patio, which sits right on Mission Street, you’re enveloped in an atmosphere that at once feels comforting and reverent. Cozy, rustic wooden tables and chairs sit nestled between rich, terra cotta walls — one of which is decorated with a large mural of the patron saint of Mexico.

Inside, several small communal tables host diners who come alone, as a couple, as a family, or with friends — all with the intention of enjoying a comforting and tasty meal. Most leave with their bellies full, and many part with something even more memorable than the food: a sense that — for a little while, anyway — they were part of a group of people who cared deeply about the shared experiences of humans, animals, the earth, and possibly something more connects us all.

How it began

Terces Engelhart has always loved Mexican food. In the late 1970s she turned the Ben Franklin Inn she managed in Pittsburg into a Mexican restaurant. She created all of the recipes herself and even drove to Virginia to buy fresh corn tortillas to use in her dishes. After moving to the Bay Area, and then to her and Matthew’s nearby Be Love Farm, she continued her love affair with Mexican food and regularly prepared farm-grown meals for herself, her husband, and her farm family.

Even Café Gratitude’s employees found themselves craving Terces’ freshly made tortillas and hearty ethic fare. They loved Mexican food, but dining options from the local taquerias weren’t consistent with their desire to nourish themselves with vegan and organic ingredients. Gracias Madre filled a void in San Francisco’s Mission District because it provided food just like Mexican grandmothers would prepare in their own kitchens, but it was done with health, the planet, and quality of life for humans and animals in mind.

Terces and Matthew placed 25-year restaurant business veteran Chandra Gilbert in charge of bringing Gracias Madre’s concept to fruition. As Director of Operations, Gilbert’s responsibilities included co-designing the gorgeous restaurant and developing the menu. Gilbert’s impeccable sense of aesthetics and her mastery of food presentation has helped Gracias Madre become one of the top Mexican restaurants in San Francisco, appealing to the local Mexican community, and a wide population of San Francisco residents and visitors.

Homemade comfort food

When I first sat down to enjoy a meal at Gracias Madre, many years ago, I was hoping to find what I cherish in a good Mexican restaurant: great food and that feeling I had as a kid of being loved, being nurtured, and being home. I found what I was searching for and so much more.

I remember eating at Mexican restaurants as a child. I would go with my mom, dad, sister, grandmother, and often extended family. We would dine on homemade guacamole, chips, beans, and other comfort foods, and then end our meal with flan or Mexican hot chocolate. As we appreciated each other’s company, mariachis would roam from table to table, taking requests and playing special songs for celebratory occasions.

Earth and human-friendly values

Gracias Madre reminds me of the Mexican restaurants I frequented in my childhood. The restaurant’s lighting is kept low and warm, candles serve as focal points on the table, and the hospitality is akin to a relative welcoming one into their small, gracious, family-owned business. Gracias Madre houses a long bar that is a perfect setting for indulging in a margarita, beer, or mixed drink. Mexican music plays throughout the restaurant and the hum of conversation beckons one to linger for a while, delighting in the presence of those we hold most dear.

But Gracias Madre offers treasures that surpass those found in the Mexican restaurants I recall from my early years. This beloved restaurant sits so well with me because it mirrors my values: eating food that doesn’t harm animals, dining on fare that is sustainable, and honoring our bodies and spirits with meals that nourish us in every way.

Much of Gracias Madre’s cuisine is made with ingredients that are grown on the Engelhart’s Be Love Farm. The beer and wine is organic and vegan, cocktails are made with organic tequila, and coffee is sourced from a fair-trade, organic vendor. Gracias Madre’s desserts (I love the peach cobbler with home-made cinnamon ice cream) are decadent and sometimes gluten free (like the Fudge Brownie with salted Mezcal caramel sauce) and an endless supply of pure drinking water comes from pretty green bottles that are waiting on tables when you arrive.

I’ve loved everything that I’ve ordered at Gracias Madre, especially the tacos, which come with 3 corn tortillas, cashew cheese, a choice of 3 fillings (I chose kale, plantains, and mushrooms), and a side of beans. The menu changes occasionally throughout the year, with some favorites remaining and a few welcomed seasonal surprises showing up.

The service I’ve received at Gracias Madre has always been spot on and impressive, with only one occasion out of many resulting in a server encounter that was just average rather than above-and-beyond.

Gracias Madre is a great place for a leisurely lunch or dinner, but prepare for a bit of a wait if you’re dining from about 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sometimes you can find a bar seat right away if you’re eating alone or with just one other person, but most of the time you’ll need to give the hostess your name and cell number, and them find a way to occupy your time until you’re called. There’s not much standing or sitting room while you’re waiting for a table, so consider buying a Gracias Madre hoodie at the restaurant and then venturing out into the Mission District for a little stroll.

Gracias Madre is at 2211 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94110. Call them at 415-683-1346.

Jana Free

Jana is a vegan mother to 2 vegan boys. She lives in Los Angeles and enjoys the abundance of plant-based options there. Jana loves traveling, and writes about vegan eateries, eco-friendly hotels, healing centers, and places to get in tune with Mother Nature.

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