Finally, Los Angeles has its first vegan restaurant. After all this time!
Well, it's easy to get that impression anyway, considering the packed-to-the-rafters opening weekend that Gracias Madre just experienced. As the Mexican food wing of popular make-good-choices eatery Café Gratitude, Gracias Madre's Melrose Avenue opening had been hotly anticipated by some and questioned by others, leading to the opening rush of gawking eaters there to immediately love, or snicker at, the place.
Whether the anticipation remains several weeks later will be hard to say, but for now the sizable space is doing a decent job of gobbling up loud chatter and clanking plates, and keeping well-tuned, health-conscious bodies from pressing into your pozole as you try to eat.
And there really are rafters in there – long wooden ones, high in the sky and painted a dim white. That is, unless you're out on the ample patio, where the only ceiling is the stars, and the ground below is a simple patchwork of long bricks. There are a few communal tables sprinkled across the indoor-outdoor areas, plus lots of stool seating that wraps the tiled bar. Gracias Madre wasn't built with future expansion in mind; this is as big as it's gonna get, which – judging by the early crowds – might not be big enough after all.
There's a fair mix of anticipatory eaters inside, those endlessly young and effortlessly wealthy types who are always on the hunt for something with quinoa. And with Gratitude's success and positive word snaking its way down from the other Gracias Madre in San Francisco, it's easy to see why vegans and lovers of all things organic would flock here. If anything, Mexican food in Los Angeles has been largely prohibido to their diets, what with all the animal fats and dairy.
But a decent number of other eaters seem to be arriving as well, nosing in with a curious look around, then snatching up a menu and squinting at the ingredients list. These are the dubious diners, trying to figure out what meat- and cheese-free Mexican food could really be like, then raising their eyebrows to find lots of simple favorites represented on the colorful paper menu.
There are chilaquiles, of course, plus tamales stuffed with poblano strips and butternut squash. Fried flautas are thickened with sweet potatoes and caramelized onions; tacos come stuffed with a triptych of seared cauliflower, grilled squash and mushrooms. Potatoes abound, and in most cases Gracias Madre doesn't try to reach for a Mexican dish that wouldn't naturally arrive as meat- or dairy-free. But in some cases, like the dense cashew cheese version of a queso fundido, the dish depends entirely on how you feel about nondairy alternatives. There's no closing your eyes and pretending this just might be the stringy, soft, melty goodness of queso you've had before.
Each of Gracias Madre's cocktails, and there are plenty, emerges with an agave base, done up in the form of mezcal or organic tequila. House margaritas are served on the rocks with orange bitters and a solid ring of salt, or mixed with Chinese five-spice and, somehow, cranberry jam. Other sips stick close to home, like a cacao-infused tequila and Gran Classico mix known affectionately as the Mexoni, or a vermouth, tequila and orange bitters drink dubbed La Ciudad.
Thankfully, the space is big enough to handle a decent bar crowd without pressing against the first layer of two-top tables, because it seems entirely likely that the vegan-leaning West Hollywood crowds that don't feel like ordering bottled Victoria from Petty Cash will start to drink here instead, working their way through the $14 apiece cocktail list. And you know what that means? More crowds.
Gracias Madre is now open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.