Singling out one favorite meal from my summertime jaunt around the 7 x 7 mile peninsula known as San Francisco would be an impossible task. Small but densely populated with more restaurants per square mile than people, or so it often appeared, even the most voracious adventurer could eat out for every meal of the day, and still never come close to exhausting their options. Picking the few gems out from the large swath of mediocre, adequate, or downright disappointing establishments, however, is a far easier task. Gracias Madre ranks very high on my list of keepers, laying claim to one of the top 5 meals I’ve eaten all year, coast to coast.
As part of the Cafe Gratitude empire and having recently expanded to a Los Angeles outpost, it’s likely that even far-flung readers who never plan to visit California have still heard of this storied establishment. It had been on my radar for years, but it had always been buried too deep within the Mission district to warrant a trek, or too busy to afford the wait. At last, the cards we stacked in my favor: It was a perfect, blue-sky day in July, warm enough to suit up with only a light jacket, and the company was unbeatable. Plus, she came with a car.
Sitting in the enclosed porch, we enjoyed a gentle breeze as dappled sunlight filtered in across our table, and a procession of savory delights began to grace our presence. Coconut Ceviche had been at the top of my “must try” list, simply because I had never seen nor tasted such a thing before. Could this tropical fruit really approximate something more oceanic in nature? Long story short: No. However, the flavors rendered from this unlikely combination are from a world beyond that expected flavor palate, elevating the dish into something entirely new. Truth be told, my one criticism was that I wanted more coconut! Each bite was dominated by rich, luscious avocado flesh instead, but that’s hardly something to complain about. Paired with sturdy, freshly fried but utterly grease-free tortilla chips, I could have been perfectly happy to make a meal of this appetizer alone.
But one could hardly turn a blind eye to the rest of the alluring menu. We ordered lavishly, accumulating far more food than any two people should reasonably consider eating for lunch, and yet not a scrap remained at the end of the meal. The Pozole, brought to the table in a great plume of steam, was not something I would have requested unprompted, but it turned out to be a top pick that day. A medley of vegetables and tender hominy mingled in a soothing, tomato-based and slightly spicy broth, topped with a thorny crown of thin tortilla strips. The balance of ingredients was pure poetry, a soup far greater than the sum of its parts.
Our final requests for the day came out in a flurry of small plates. Elote, a classic, beautifully simple preparation of grilled corn and Mexican cheese, has always been out of reach due to the dairy component, so it was a true pleasure to finally sink my teeth into that cashew cheese-smeared cob. The smoky, toasted kernels were perfectly cooked, plump and lightly charred, but the real star was that cashew crema. Upon asking the chef what magic went into such an ethereal condiment, he graciously laid out the entire recipe for us. Ready with you paper and pencil? Here’s how it goes down: Soak a bunch of cashews over night. Drain them. Add a bit of ancho chili, salt and black pepper, and blend them with a splash of fresh water until silky smooth. And that’s all he wrote.
Simple Greens Con Chile y Ajo were easily a step above your average sauteed kale, sparkling with crisp pepitas and carefully applied touches of spice. Always well seasoned but never hot, per se, these small touches proved the true finesse of the kitchen. Escabeche, pickled vegetables, rounded out our midday feast with a pleasing salty side, but were largely an unnecessary accoutrement to this lavish spread.
While I’m not about to start picking favorites, I will say that Gracias Madre is easily near the top of my hit list. If you’re ever in town, consider if your duty as an eater of any dietary designation to try it out at least once.