There has never been a better time to be a vegan. Stores are stocked with piles of dairy-free dairy — all the ice cream and cheese and butter your heart could desire. There are dating sites and online communities to help you meet like-minded eaters. And now, finally, the vegan restaurant has broken free from its self-built hippie prison. The glamorous vegan restaurant has arrived.
In L.A., we have M.A.K.E., Matthew Kenney's sleek raw/vegan restaurant at Santa Monica Place, serving dishes such as lasagna and dumplings without the benefit of heat, meat or dairy. Crossroads, Tal Ronnen's fantastic, stylish, "plant-based" restaurant on Melrose, could be the standard-bearer for the new wave of vegan places, adding serious booze accolades to the mix, as well as highly creative food you might never even peg as meat-free if you weren't thinking about it.
Of course, we've long had Café Gratitude, a chain of San Francisco–based vegan cafés, which practically defines loopy West Coast vegetarianism. Best known for the self-affirming names of its dishes, such as "I am fulfilled" or "I am serene," Café Gratitude serves bowls of healthful ingredients such as kelp noodles, tempeh, marinated kale and local brown rice. If you can stomach the wide-eyed, irony-free kumbayah attitude at Gratitude, the waiter telling you to ponder the question "What are your dreams?" before he runs off to punch in your order for a live blue-green algae "elixir," you have to admit that some of these bowls of quinoa and sweet potato shmoosh are quite tasty — you know, for vegan food.
Now Café Gratitude has opened Gracias Madre, which also has a location in the Bay Area. More upscale than Gratitude, Gracias Madre gives Mexican food the vegan treatment. The results are somewhat uneven.
Where both M.A.K.E. and Crossroads have mainly been able to avoid the regular pitfalls of meat-free cooking — blandness, heavy-handedness — Gracias Madre is a more mixed bag.
Located near the end (or beginning) of Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, Gracias Madre is a gorgeous restaurant. Previously an antique store, the space is awash with clean white paint, making its high, vaulted ceilings and light wood floors feel sleek but inviting. There's an outdoor patio, anchored by a roaring fireplace, which more than doubles the restaurant's seating capacity. Colorful cushions, stylish tilework and cascading, potted plants make the whole place feel like something out of a high-design Mexican home-decor magazine.
Aside from the look of the place, other niceties have been imported from the world of fashionable restaurants, including $14 cocktails. But there are also imports from the world of Café Gratitude, such as a 100 percent organic menu and fresh-pressed juices that might include ingredients such as burdock root. Both — the cocktails and the juices — are quite good, the booze concoctions ranging in genre from grown-up and mezcal-manly to a lavender drink that smells and tastes like an upscale spa. The tequila and mezcal collection is impressively extensive.
The kitchen here, led by Chandra Gilbert, aims to provide diners with meat-free and dairy-free versions of Mexican comfort foods. The food menu looks much like any Mexican restaurant's: guacamole, flautas, enchiladas, tacos, chilaquiles. It can't be easy to be a vegan unable to frequent your neighborhood combo-plate refried beans joint — the #5 enchiladas/flautas/rice/beans combo might not be our greatest cultural achievement, but it's definitely a comforting go-to that many of us can't imagine living without.
So Gracias Madre serves vegan nacho cheese. It's made of cashews and is mildly spicy and more runny than the queso you might be accustomed to, but when drizzled over flash-fried cauliflower, it's quite delicious. Not in the exact same way a cheese sauce might be, but great in its own right: nuttier and less oily.
Gorditas, or small cakes made with warm potato and masa, are simply a good, savory conduit for the warmly piquant green salsa that tops them. A flurry of chopped romaine and a few slices of avocado provide the requisite textural contrast.
Stuffed with caramelized onions and sweet potato before being deep-fried, the flautas might be the best entree on the menu. They make expert use of the inherent fat and heft of guacamole, which dots the top of the dish. They're also heavy enough to induce a food coma, which some might see as a bonus, given the veggie-based context.
But some of the food here undeniably suffers from being too weighty, such as the tamal, which in its dense and leaden consistency lacks the buoyancy and fluff of the best versions.
Then there's the opposite problem, the food that has a ton of upfront salt and back-of-the-tongue acid but lacks that thing that coats your center palate and makes food delicious. I fear the thing I'm referring to is fat. This was an issue with the pozole, a soup that was as salty and spicy as it should be but missed the whole middle of your tongue, leaving you gobbling for satisfaction that never comes.
Some dishes, too, are just bland. Tacos, which are stuffed with cauliflower and grilled squash, seem too much like an oddly tasteless salad served inside tortillas. And while Gracias Madre's house-made tortillas are thick and comforting, too often what's served with them doesn't do them justice. "El Plato," the entree that promises "some of everything," is a collection of vegetable offerings like chorizo mushrooms and butternut squash surrounding brown rice, but apart from the one bright spot — a small dollop of tasty cilantro pesto — the food seemed oddly flat.
"You know what's vegan and would be delicious?" one tablemate quipped. "Lime juice."
Dessert can be the best part of the meal. The mild flavor of coconut wends through much of the sweeter offerings, including the flan, which has a slightly odd texture but is a pretty impressive approximation of a dessert that's usually made with not much other than milk and eggs. The ice creams can be a wee bit icy, but there's a creaminess there, too, and the flavors are great. A huge apple cobbler is spiced just right, and the Mexican wedding cookies are gratifyingly dusty and delicious.
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It's practically impossible to get a reservation at Gracias Madre between 5 and 9 p.m., and the people packing the place are thrilled. But I fear they're missing out on something. Because while the fake ice cream and soy chorizo that abound here are all well and good, a better argument for veganism can be found at the farmers market. Southern California's lavish vegetable bounty outshines any trick you can do to dress up cashews as nacho cheese. While local produce is a priority here, there's not much that goes beyond the expected.
Not only that, but Mexican cuisine is rife with vegetable dishes, which rarely show up on standard Mexican-American restaurant menus. Where is the chayote, the huitlacoche, the nopal? Gracias Madre has missed a real opportunity here to explore parts of Mexican cooking that many other SoCal restaurants miss, to delve into something deeper than deep-fried sweet potatoes or mole mushrooms.
The vegans of Los Angeles obviously are clamoring for restaurants that feel glamorous, and Gracias Madre is delivering with its beautiful space and its fancy cocktails. And let's be clear: Cooking Mexican comfort food without the use of meat or dairy is no easy task. I can see how this place would feel like a lavish treat for anyone living on a plant-based diet. I wish I could tell you that it's just as likely to thrill the rest of us.
GRACIAS MADRE | Two stars | 8905 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd. | (323) 978-2170 | graciasmadreweho.com | Daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. | Entrees, $12-$16 | Full bar | Valet and street parking