Gracias Madre Heats Up Melrose

Great food and celebrity sightings make it perfect for L.A.GraciasMadre

By Genie Davis

Gracias Madre is perfect for Los Angeles—glamorous diners in trendy couture, celebrity sightings (Jennifer Lopez, when we visited) and a luxe look in what was once an elegant antique shop at the almost-Beverly-Hills end of Melrose. Colorful cushions, golden light and high ceilings grace the interior, and the capacious patio with a charming fireplace makes this a spot to see and be seen. Bright, serene and studded with white lights and candles, the restaurant just looks like L.A.

The food is also perfect for the Southland. Gracias Madre is part of the Café Gratitude family and hails from San Francisco, but the vegan take on classic Mexican cuisine feels more So Cal. It’s elegant and thoughtful, served by a friendly and informative staff, and well matched to craft cocktails made with organic ingredients.

Nightly menus include an organic “cocktail program.” The Purista house margarita comes with a sweet orange salt on the rim; try the spicy version with jalapeno-infused tequila for an extra kick. And if you like it sweet, the popular La Quinceanera, featuring a shaved iced on top of a drink made from tequila blanco, muddled kiwi and agave nectar, might make you feel 15 again. While craft cocktails are somewhat de rigeur at upscale L.A. restaurants, the fresh ingredients and artisanal alcohol here lend a light touch.

The food feels light, too. As rich as some of these Mexican dishes are with substantially seasoned sauces and salsas, because they are plant based they feel far less weighty than traditional offerings made with dairy and meat. That said, some of the most delicious dishes here are the simplest. Coliflor Frito is a stunning starter of flash-fried cauliflower topped with house-made nacho cheese—a flavorful, dairy-free product made from cashews, lemon, chili flakes, pumpkin seeds, chipotle powder, jalapeno and garlic. Or try fresh guacamole with mild onion, cilantro, chili and lime, served with warm, house-made corn tortillas; along with, perhaps, a refreshing grapefruit, avocado and lettuce salad.

Main courses get a little more complicated. Justifiably popular, the Flautas de Camote are rolled soft tacos filled with sweet potatoes and caramelized onions. Topped with cilantro, guacamole and fresh, roughly chopped pico de gallo, the sweet and salty fusion works perfectly. El Plato, a dish that promises a taste of “everything,” is not quite as well fused; brown rice with lime joins mushroom “chorizo” made from well-seasoned tempeh, pesto redolent with cilantro, and butternut squash topped with more of the restaurant’s stellar nacho cheese. More to my liking is the deceptively simple Tamal—a tamale made with a lighter potato pache rather than traditional masa, and filled with squash, poblano peppers and onions.

What’s left? Desert and after-dinner drinks. Lingering under an aqua magic-hour sky on the patio—in a movie scene that could be shot only in L.A.—it’s time to bring on the sweets: Mexican wedding cookies with chocolate-coconut milk ice cream. Homemade flan that will melt on your plate if you don’t devour it quickly; but you will. A gluten-free fudge brownie topped with sprinkles of coconut bacon and mezcal-infused coconut whipped cream.

After dinner? Cool horchata has a cinnamon kick, while Mexican hot chocolate contains enough spice to light up your taste buds and keep the sweetness of the chocolate at bay. Even on a warm spring night, the heat in this drink is welcome.

What a pleasure to find that culturally accurate Mexican food can also be vegan, organic, light, beautiful, bountiful and excellent for celebrity sightings.

Gracias Madre, 8905 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood 90069. 323.978.2170, www.graciasmadreweho.com

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