For an atheist, I have what one might consider an odd obsession: new religious movements. San Francisco has a long history of birthing or coddling them and many would argue that these entities are spiritual rather than religious – just like many a San Franciscan. But that doesn't mean that the leader or organization doesn't proselytize, promise some form of ecstatic or liberating catharsis and, maybe most importantly, attract both zealous converts and zealous detractors.
And nearly ever spiritual movement in history has had an opinion on what to eat, or not to eat, and when. Mainstream examples abound – think of Ramadan, Passover, or Lent. While any number of restaurants in this town has cult followings, only a few have been associated with groups accused of being an actual religion. Beyond exploring the intricacies of their personalities, practices, rituals, belief systems, and the attendant controversy, I had a simpler question: "How is the food?" So I set out to try the fare at some of the city's restaurants that not only promise a hot meal, but also a side dish of enlightenment.
My first stop was Gracias Madre, just a few blocks away from my apartment. It's run by the same folks who operate the Café Gratitude chain and Be Love Farm, adherents to the life-changing potential of Landmark Education. Landmark is the corporate and spiritual descendant of Erhard Seminars Training, or EST , which repackaged the American revival tradition with Eastern philosophy and behavioral psychology as large group awareness training back in the ’70s. According to an article in the East Bay Express , Landmark's influence includes mindfulness sessions at the start of shifts and $495 introductory seminars attended by employees who are urged to participate.
What I discovered about Gracias Madre is that the restaurant is well aware it’s competing with some of the best Central American cuisine in the country, and doing it with at least one hand behind its back – namely, no meat, dairy, and as far as I could tell, no gluten. Instead, the business seems to hang its success on the appeal to a different kind of fundamentalist than those who argue about the merits of La Cumbre over El Farolito. Instead these fundamentalists set Michael Pollan against Jonathan Safran Foer, all while holding appeal for the casual diner who might not know or care that they are eating vegan.
The space is as modern and designer-wrought as any you might expect along the 18th Street foodie corridor (which includes the Bi-Rite Market and Tartine), with a large mosaic mural of Mother Earth blessing la raza with delicious produce at the entrance portico.
But Gracias Madre is much less overt in its approach to spreading the message than mother-chain Café Gratitude, which offers positivism to its customers with menu item names like "I Am Worthy." The only hint of an ulterior motive is the brief mention on a menu subhead reading "Our Mission Is Love," and who doesn't love "love"? Otherwise, the menu reads like something from Oakland's Doña Tomas – brief description of items and sources, hewing to authentic classics, and with prices to match.
I wanted to judge Gracias Madre against the standard set by its neighbors and not only by its spiritual or dietary adherents, so my friend Schlomo and I ordered the two most classic items on any Mexican menu. My entrée sported a lone tamal stuffed with butternut squash. Schlomo's enchiladas con mole poblano were, at best, "deconstructed" – just sautéed mushrooms and sauce poured over the house tortillas. If Gracias Madre was going for accessibility, they've succeeded in the sense that everything felt prepared and then swung under a salamander just before serving, like a typical sit-down Mexican joint. Our entrées showed up before the cauliflower appetizer; that's how fast they put plates up.
Schlomo and I came away with leftovers, and the notion that it would be a good place for a date if we were trying to get in a vegan's pants.
The Loving Hut concept came from Ching Hai, a woman known to admirers as the "Supreme Master." Hai is, according to the literature available at the restaurant in Chinatown, a "world renowned humanitarian and spiritual teacher." While Loving Hut isn't a franchise operation, according to the website , it is a chain with 10 locations in California, nine in other states, and more around the world. The menus and decor might vary, as each is apparently family run.
I brought along my friend Min Jung and her 10-month-old daughter. MJ is, like me, more of a "meat tooth" than a sweet tooth. Loving Hut offers all sorts of faux-meat products, with the faux shrimp winning rave reviews from Vegansaurus. The menu looks similar one of a typical Chinese-American diner, offering both Eastern dishes in clay pots and Western favorites like burgers and fries, plus smoothies and deserts, and at eminently reasonable prices.
Of all the restaurants I visited, however, the Loving Hut was the most overt in presenting the central message of the movement's founder. Hai graces the cover of free booklets and pages of the menus themselves extolling her "Save the planet, go veg" campaign. She is also seen on Supreme Master Television, which was playing quietly in the background on a large flat screen at the back of the restaurant.
We started with the Ocean Basket, which included the faux shrimp, mushroom, green beans and bean curd skin with seaweed, all panko-crusted and deep-fried. The seaweed added the one nice note of the sea, and the mushrooms (which could have stood in for oysters) were nice and juicy. And the shrimp? Surprisingly shrimpy for something reportedly made from yams! "Uncanny" was the word I used to describe the texture and appearance, and MJ agreed, adding that they were "incredible" and "actually tasted like shrimp."
But the faux animal didn't end there. In fact, it was hard to find dishes that celebrated vegetables as vegetables on the menu. Almost everything had some sort of soy protein standing in for meat, including the Three Cup Wonder, which was almost entirely puffy, textured soy something standing in for chicken or pork with a smattering of sweet red dates and goji berries. Even the Thai Pineapple Fried Rice had little flecks of the faux barbecue pork tossed in.
But at $35 for a relatively healthy, filling lunch for two adults wasn't so bad – and while we joked that we could always grab some pork buns for dessert, we didn't actually feel the need. The Loving Hut is probably a beacon for vegan and vegetarian tourists after a long walk past the roast ducks and beheaded fish in the windows and stalls of the shops on Stockton.
The next stop was at one of the city's oldest spiritually inspired eateries, Ananda Fuara, which is run by disciples of guru Sri Chinmoy . Like strict Buddhists in East Asia, there is a long tradition of vegetarianism in Chinmoy's homeland of India and a broad and flavorful but meatless culinary tradition to match. I brought along my Uncle Richard who was in town from Charleston, South Carolina, for a philosophy conference. He's mostly vegetarian, but occasionally eats seafood.
We started with the samosas, which were larger than those typically found at Indian restaurants and seemed to be baked rather than deep-fried, more resembling an English pasty or South American empanada. Still, the potato, pea, and raisin filling was flavorful, complemented nicely by a sweet mango sauce. Richard ordered the curry dinner so I went with the Neatloaf, since I'd avoided the Western-style comfort foods at Loving Hut and figured that, at worst, at least there would be mashed potatoes.
The Neatloaf – along with the curry and saffron rice – was not aggressively spiced and resembled an egg-and-ricotta frittata. It was saved by a tangy tomato-based sauce that was actually pretty good. The potatoes with mushroom gravy would pass muster at any diner. The generous, colorful salads seem to be the real specialties – I spotted one at another table, and would probably go for that on another visit.
The wait staff was quite friendly, and for the odd hour on a particularly barren stretch of Market Street, it was busy. On a previous visit a few years ago, it had been quite packed for lunch, which explains its staying power near the Civic Center, because unless you're craving donuts, hamburgers, or Vietnamese food, there aren't many options in the immediate neighborhood.
As for the proselytizing? Well, there are a number of large photos of Chinmoy looming over the room, as well as what appeared to be paintings from his series of "Soul Birds." And the noodling on the flute that played in the room was likely from one of Chinmoy's musical recordings, which along with postcards of the paintings and a series of books, are for sale next to the register. I grabbed a quick information sheet, which listed Chinmoy's many accomplishments and suggested that anyone interested in learning more should just ask the servers – confirming my suspicion that, at least in the front of the house, we were meeting devotees.
What did I learn from the experience? Well, what struck me was the effort that was put forth to mainstream the various organizations and their ideals. And jokes aside about low-protein diets used to make potential converts more suggestible, it's clear that one of the easiest ways to reach out to people spiritually is by appealing to the universal need for more worldly sustenance in the form of food.
These small businesses also embodied an entrepreneurial spirit that seems very San Francisco. They are a unique blend of secular capitalism and free spiritual expression, though it's not quite clear which is co-opting which. And I have to hand it to all three restaurants – while the quality of the food varied, the quality of service did not. You could do worse than being waited on by people who really believe that the true path to enlightenment starts at your stomach.
Do It Yourself: Want to add a certain spiritual je ne sais quoi to your order? Try out the Mexican vegan offerings at Gracias Madre, Loving Hut on Stockton Street, or the always-popular vegetarian Ananda Fuara