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Gracias Madre has accomplished two rare feats in the dining world. First, the locations in buzzy West Hollywood and tony Newport Beach remain hotspots years after opening, long after the initial blush of trendiness wears off from many restaurants. The second – and perhaps even more difficult – accomplishment Gracias Madre can claim is that it is a completely vegan restaurant that is adored by non-vegans.
Those mixed crowds pack in for the festive atmosphere, skillful cocktails, and indulgent vegan Mexican food. Executive Chef Justin Haefler takes care of the latter, crafting elevated, plant-based takes on familiar dishes like fajitas and enchiladas.
On April 3, you’ll be able to see catch Haefler at Masters of Taste, a charity benefit that brings many of the region’s best chefs and restaurants out to the iconic Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Back for the first time since 2019, the event raises funds for Union Station Homeless Services to help families and individuals experiencing homelessness. Haefler will be doing a featured demonstration of his famous vegan queso fundido at the event – but he gave us a little preview below.
Can you tell us a little about your approach to vegan Mexican food?
My goal with taking on vegan Mexican cuisine is to take the flavors and techniques of the non-vegan world and infuse them in the vegan world, whilst continuing to grow and learn. I find that I commonly cross authentic flavors with my modern ideas. It does help a little that I’ve been cooking Mexican cuisine for over 13 years.
What are some of your go-to ingredients or techniques that really define your cooking style?
My go-to ingredients have to be chillies. The vast variety and different flavor profiles allows me to be creative and unique all the time. My favorite chili is the Oaxacan chili. When it comes to techniques, I definitely have my own bag of tricks and non-traditional style, but I like to blend in traditional cooking styles often. For example, my jackfruit carnitas are rubbed in special spices and braised, then slow-cooked just as you would regular carnitas.
What dishes on the Gracias Madre menu are you particularly excited about right now?
One of my menu favorites would have to be the queso fundido, which I infuse with Oaxacan chillies, giving it a unique smokiness that customers absolutely love! Some of my other favorites are my parm pastor tacos, made with al pastor oyster mushrooms, rolled in a vegan parmesan crisp, on a bed of mixed greens tossed in hemp seed basil pesto, topped with my three-chili aioli and pickled red onions. And of course my labor of love is the jackfruit carnitas mentioned before. The carnitas are so savory and flavorful. I personally think it’s the best vegan carnitas I’ve ever tasted!
You’re going to be participating in the upcoming Masters of Taste. Can you tell us a little about what you’ll be demonstrating there and why you’re participating in this charity event?
I am honored to be invited to participate at Masters of Taste! It’s a win-win for me to be able to combine the act of giving with my food. I’m very excited to be able to support the Union Station Homeless Services in Pasadena by providing Masters of Taste’s guests a delicious, plant-based dish they’ll never forget. I’ll be demonstrating my fan-favorite vegan queso fundido dip, which is a cashew based, Oaxacan chili-infused, queso/no queso dip, with portobello mushrooms and green onions, served with chips. Alongside my dip, our beverage director, Maxwell Reis, will be recreating his incredibly unique Paloma cocktail to pair. Winner-winner vegan dinner!
Gracias Madre’s Vegan Queso Fundido by Chef Justin Haefler
1 cup water, plus more for soaking
1 lb of Oaxacan chilis
Instructions: Toast chilis in your oven’s broiler for a few minutes to get them roasted. Then soak in water for at least 15 minutes. Blend chilis and water into a blender to form a paste. If too thick, add more water. If too liquid, add more chilis.
Vegan Nacho Cheese
4 cups of cashews (soaked in water overnight or for a few hours)
2 cups water
½ cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons apple cider
4 ½ tablespoons onion powder
1 tablespoon salt
9 teaspoons turmeric powder
1 garlic clove
1 chipotle in adobo
1 tablespoons chipotle powder
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
Instructions: Add all ingredients to a blender and blend until smooth. Add water to reach desired consistency (not too thick or too runny).
Mushroom Oaxacan Cheese Sauce
1/4 cup Oaxacan Paste (or desired amount depending on how spicy you like it, recipe above)
4 quarts vegan nacho cheese sauce (recipe above)
6 Roasted portobello mushrooms, sliced thinly
Instructions: Place all ingredients into a pot and bring to a simmer for about 10 minutes or until all ingredients flavors have infused.
Plate the Vegan Queso Fundido
Oaxacan cheese (from above)
2 oz Vegan Mozzarella Cheese
1 oz Green Onions for garnish (optional)
Tortilla Chips or Soft Tortillas for serving
Set your oven’s broiler to high. Place Oaxacan cheese in a hot iron skillet or oven-friendly dish and top with mozzarella cheese. Place in oven until the top is light brown and crisp. Garnish with green onions (optional) and serve with chips or soft tortillas.