With Café Om about to close I packed up my computer, whispered Namaste in Buddha’s direction and headed out. An early evening rain dissolved the night scene into blotches of wobbled pastels marked by dancing taillights. We jumped in the car and headed down Melrose now a wet and black oily snake, toward Gracias Madre a restaurant that had been open but a few weeks.
Gracias Madre: such an appropriate name, a thank you to the Queen of Angels, Mother Earth as well as the mothers and grandmothers.
This was our day to eat vegan: we didn’t plan it, it just happened. Lunchtime and hungry for Japanese food we decided to try Shojin a restaurant that had been recommended by a macrobiotic friend. Even though we had been duly warned that the chef does not use refined sugar, brown sugar, agave, dairy, chemicals or artificial flavors, we hopped on the Arroyo Seco Parkway in Highland Park where we were staying and headed downtown toward Little Tokyo.
I pray to the Madre when I travel the Arroyo Parkway. Opened in 1940 it is the oldest freeway in LA. With no on or off ramps just stop signs at lines that lead immediately on to the roadway, it’s the antique of the LA system with few changes since the day it opened. Each time I get on it I think of the early days when Model T’s, Packard’s, and Nash’s slowly plotted their way toward Pasadena. I remember traveling the Parkway as a child in Dad’s old Nash on New Year’s Day. He piled us in and drove up the Arroyo before dawn in order to get a curbside seat for the Rose Parade.
In the summer of 2011 during a trip to Japan James and I visited Kamakura the home of the famous Daibutsu – the great Buddha. In this small town of great temples we had the pleasure of eating temple food. Some temples have restaurants. Some have a kitchen and chef well trained in preparing temple food, but no restaurant. In the latter the sacred meal is served in the sacred rooms. Our guide from Back Street Travels had made a reservation at the last.
On arriving we were seated in one of the meditation rooms at a low table with comfortable cushions for sitting. After a short time for meditation we were served. A panorama of Buddhist deities as well as lingering vibrations from sacred rituals surrounded us as we ate. Each ingredient had been treated with utmost respect. Even the presentation, texture and flavor of the meat analogues generally something I avoid, truly surprised me. This was a meal that would take residence in my memory and imagination.
I hoped temple food would be the basis of Shojin’s menu. I was not dissappointed. While no temple, Shojin is quiet, the walls dark, the lights low, and the servers gracious as in the Japanese tradition. The stuffed shitakes took me back to Kamakura. My resident vegan could not have been happier. Guaranteed to satisfy foodies of all persuasions I cannot understand why Michelin hasn’t discovered Shojin.
As an aside, LA has become a growing mecca for vegan and vegetarian restaurants. PETA, People for the Ethic Treatment of Animals lists it in its top ten list for vegetarian friendly cities in the US. Ten years ago, when I had a craving for vegan I went to Real Food Daily on La Cienega. Real Food is still a good bet, but Indian, Mexican, Columbian, Ethiopian, many Asian are now available.
The idea and practice of veganism has been the topic of recent conversations with my foodie friends. More than once I have heard it referred to as extreme, impossible to be a foodie if vegan! While I am not the total vegan I used to be, I fail to appreciate or understand the dismissive attitude toward veganism. Perhaps the issue has to do more with the word foodie, than vegan. In The Achewood Cookbook Chris Onstad’s response to foodie offers food for thought
“There are so many words that already describe people who like food….Foodie: It’s like the infantile diminutive—you put a y on the end of everything to make it childlike. We don’t need it. It’s embarrassing. I’m a foodie. OMG.”
Raw, vegan, vegetarian, fruitarian, pescatarian, meat driven, culinarian (broadening the term from one who makes food to one who consumes on a given level), macrobiotic or in the heavenly realms of existing on air, (airean?) present quite a range of choices. Would that each of us would listen to the wisdom of the body, determine what it needs, make the appropriate choice and graciously accept those of other foodies.
Crossroads, a formal dining spot on Melrose another recent vegan addition to LA has been getting a lot of positive press. Chef Ronnen who prepared the wedding dinner for Ellen and Portia and worked for Oprah, had acquired fame before he opened the restaurant. A good critique as well as an educational essay for non-vegans can be found at
Crossroads: A New Leaf – Digest – Los Angeles magazine www.lamag.com
By the time we arrived at Gracias Madre the rain had stopped. With its ranch-like interior and colorful pillows Gracias Madre a recent transplant from Nor Cal is casual, a great place to relax over a meal. We chose to sit at the bar per usual as we like getting to know the people who run the establishment. Sitting at the bar is one way to do just that. We started our meal with the seasonal aguas frescas that is made daily from freshly squeezed fruit. In this case mango and pineapple. A tad too light, a bit too thin it tasted watered down, not enough fruit flavor, just ok.
I ordered sopes con pina: two masa cakes with guacamole, pineapple, habanero salsa, pickled cabbage, cashew cream and cilantro. The dish was generally tasty, but the cakes a little hard. I’ve never had a masa cake that required a steak knife for cutting. Pickled cabbage added a nice texture to complement the silky avocado. I stuffed the toppings into the handmade, thick, fresh corn tortillas served on the side. The crema made from cashew milk seemed indistinguishable from “real” crème – a real plus for a vegan restaurant.
For his Principales James ordered El Plato: a bit of everything from the entrée menu: butternut squash, cashew nacho cheese, chorizo mushrooms, cilantro pesto, escabeche rice, pico de gallo, beans and tortilla. Each item would have been just fine on its own, but mixed together they were too heavy and some of the tastes failed to complement one another.
On the whole my experience was good Mexican comfort food all the way–clean and healthy comfort food. Only open for a short time, at this point I could not call it a destination. None-the-less, I would happily drop in to Gracias Madre were I in the area–if only for the chips and salsa.