Flavor: Traditional taqueria
Ambiance: Clean, utilitarian and very well-lit
There’s a new taqueria on Haywood Road. Perhaps you’ve seen it. OK, surely you’ve seen it: Agave Azul exudes a fluorescent glow so bright it’s probably catching the eye of local astronomers.
But who needs a Big Dipper in the sky when you can have first-rate enchiladas on your plate? The lighting at Agave is indisputably over-the-top—but it takes a certain pride in one’s offerings to shine a bulb this bright on them. And while just recalling the artificial white light ricocheting off the restaurant’s sky-blue walls is enough to make my retinas wince, my taste buds bear no such psycho-traumatic scars from the meal I enjoyed at Agave, which featured good, cheap Mexican classics lovingly grilled and bundled with cheese.
Mexican classics form the core of Agave’s menu, much to my surprise. Judging a restaurant by its name is so stupefyingly misguided it makes plain old book-cover judging seem sophisticated, but I still figured a place calling itself Agave Azul would traffic in authentic Oaxacan delicacies or some other underrepresented Central American cuisine. Nope. Agave Azul is as thoroughly Tex-Mex’ed as any stateside restaurant calling itself El This or La That.
Agave apparently briefly fancied itself a Salvadoran eatery, detailing its plate-glass windows with a cartoonish depiction of a voracious-looking fellow forever chasing a two-legged pupusa, the stuffed and sealed tortilla snack celebrated as El Salvador’s national dish. But a mere month after Agave opened, most of the menus mentioning pupusas had already been replaced. The few original menus still in circulation had been edited by hand to reflect the change: A definitive scrawl across the pupusa section reads “out of order.”
So diners are left with the traditional Mexican-American platos: tacos, burritos, tostadas and fajitas, the last of which our server singled out as a particular favorite. “So good!” she trilled.
Every time we saw our server, she was enthusiastic and friendly. Problem was, we didn’t see her very often. Eating at Agave is much like eating at your grandparents’ house: The hosts are thrilled to have you there, but would it kill you to chip in and help with the dishes? Diners stack their own dirty plates at the end of their table, and approach the counter for a bill when they’re finished. (We didn’t fully understand the system until we’d spent a postprandial 45 minutes waiting.)
But, at this price point, griping about the service and décor seems ungrateful—and probably unfair. It’s nearly impossible to overspend at Agave, where tacos are $1.50 and $5 buys a fat burrito stuffed with tender carne asada. My party of four had barely ordered $20 worth of food before our server suggested we might need another table to accommodate so many plates.
Like the servers, food at Agave arrives whenever it’s ready. No matter how carefully you may have plotted your order, service proceeds according to a hard-to-track system determined by the grill. Main dishes show up long before an intended appetizer, and sometimes, two out of three diners can finish their dishes before the third has any food at all.
The food is almost all good: Agave’s only real culinary shortcoming is in churning out a few too many undistinguished dishes. It’s almost impossible to tell which of the two sauces served with the complimentary basket of chips is supposed to be hotter, and a few of the meats are noticeably underseasoned. But other than a metallic-tasting vegetarian tamale, stuffed with a blintz-worthy combo of diced pineapple and white cheese, none of the dishes I sampled went severely awry.
That’s a forthrightly carnivorous perspective, since the troublesome tamale was just one example of Agave falling short on the meat-free front. The restaurant’s take on beans and rice, a vegetarian staple and the requisite accompaniment to most any Mexican entrée, does not a meal make. The mostly whole pinto beans were bland and watery, as though the cook started to make a batch of traditional refritos and then ran out of time. The garnish was hastily affixed to each plate—a leaf of iceberg lettuce and a sickly pale pink tomato slice—suggesting kitchen’s discomfort with anything that didn’t once have a heartbeat.
But order any dish with animal products, and the kitchen’s collective sigh of relief is palpable. Even the pork tamale, while scantily stuffed, is an entirely different creature than its vegetarian compatriot. The masa is a warm golden brown, compared to the albino jacket wrapped around the pineapple-y stuff, and the meat is delightfully moist.
Agave offers a quartet of shrimp dishes, including an entrée-sized shrimp cocktail and grilled shrimp doused with butter and garlic. We tried the Camarones a la Diabla, which featured plump shrimp in a pleasingly syrupy sauce that paid unintended tribute to the sweet-and-sour preparations pioneered by Chinese-American eateries.
Shrimp, steak, chicken and pork—plain, seasoned or fried—can be made the centerpiece of any of Agave’s dishes, including the much-vaunted fajitas, which turned out to taste mostly of grill and heat. The well-fatted carne asada is especially good, and probably best enjoyed as a torta, smeared with butter and mayonnaise and topped with jalapenos and avocado. If Agave’s menudo—served on the mornings following late weekend nights—couldn’t calm partied out internal organs, this satisfyingly greasy sandwich would undoubtedly do the trick.
Still, the very best dish I found was the green chicken enchiladas, a terrifically creamy combination of perfectly grilled chicken and a vibrant verde sauce, rolled in corn tortillas and caressed with cheese. The entrée smoked everything else on our table, and should be reason alone to pay Agave a visit.