Tequilería El Agave (no traumas here)

My first experience with tequila was a long time ago (in the late eighties) when I was in Tijuana with some American friends. What I remember most vividly was the terror I felt when a bunch of waiters came to our table, one madly blowing a whistle as if he were directing traffic, another was carrying a bottle of tequila, a third comes from behind, opens my friend’s mouth, pours the liquid down her throat, closes her mouth, they raise the chair up in the air, and shake it like a martini while the whistle wails creepily the entire time.Tequilería El Agave

I was stunned, I had no idea what was going on, it seemed that I was the only one who wasn’t amused or appreciative of this charming alcohol attack –this is the kind of thing I call craziness. For a second, time stood still, everyone looked at me excitedly, and that’s when I realized what the expectation was: and it wasn’t piña coladas, Caesar salad, and getting caught in the rain. I informed them that they could expect to walk back to San Diego if anyone came anywhere near me, since I was the one who drove. For years, this was my impression of tequila (I know, I know ….)

The other (much better impression) was of young college students downing shots of the cheapest tequila they could buy in order to get wasted, and then complain about how horrible and low class tequila was.

I didn’t start drinking or appreciating tequila until 2002 when I met my former better half, who was (and I suppose still is) and American anthropologist. His father is a wine connoisseur and I feel very strongly that he took an interest in tequila as a friendly rivalry with him; which was fine with me because tequila test tastings at home were a lot of fun; and by fun I mean ¿educational…?

El Agave, SD

I love Mexican food, who doesn’t love tacos? In San Diego you can practically find a taco shop in every corner: ninety per cent of them have names that end in “ertos” (Adalbertos, Mamertos, Albertos, Rigobertos, Humbertos, Gualbertos, and every combination in between) and they are all painted yellow and red –what’s up with that? I’ve been to upscale, Nouvelle cuisine Mexican restaurants in San Diego, but my favorite one without a doubt is El Agave.

El Agave was established sixteen years ago by Juan Carlos Gómez whose family owns El Portal de Cartagena in México City’s Roma district. El Agave is located in the outskirts of that awful place called Old Town (Mexican Disneyland, where people will find the kind of Mexican food that suits their fantasies of large plates, combos, and yellow cheese, and I know: everyone loves it).

El Agave has over a thousand tequilas available, an awesome cilantro soup, and above all amazing service –the main reason why I have been going there for the past ten years. I have been living in the US for half my life, but one of the things that I have never gotten used to is that dreadful habit that waiters have of bothering you, interrupting you, wanting to be your best friend. Yes, I know it’s a cultural difference, but it still gets to me. I love that at El Agave they are always professional, attentive, discreet, friendly, unobtrusive, and they make you feel at ease.

Squash flower blossom soup

Squash flower blossom soup

It has been my experience that everyone I take here (from flexible to finicky) ends up loving it; even my Mexican friends like it -and they are by law required to state that their mother’s food is the best ever. I find the atmosphere elegant, cozy, and comfortable. During lunch you see business men in suits, and tourists in shorts and sneakers. During summer evenings I like to dine in their roofed patio and watch the fireworks from Sea World (which is as close to that place as I want to be.)

El Agave is where I take everyone who comes to visit me, sometimes I take my classes there, it’s where I go to celebrate and to drown my sorrows. It’s one of my ideal places to spend an afternoon eating, tasting tequilas, and hanging out with good friends in a pleasant, relaxed, and amiable setting. It’s also a place where a woman can go alone, sit at their bar, eat, have some drinks without feeling uncomfortable or out of place and talk with interesting people.

However, their food is not for everyone. You won’t find the beloved delicacies of Tex-Mex cuisine like nachos, burritos, and cheddar cheese quesadillas. It is not a cheap place, but it isn’t super expensive either -I tell my students to save the money they spend in a week at Starbucks, and try to eat something different.

Entremeses surtidos

Entremeses surtidos

For beginners, a good option is their appetizer sampler (Entremeses surtidos); it can be shared by four people and comes with shrimp and crab turnovers, Mexican manchego quesadillas filled with mushrooms, and poblano chile, guacamole, rolled tacos filled with potatoes and homemade chorizo, beef tacos (not the crunchy kind), sopes with cochinita pibil, with shrimp in a chipotle sauce, and with cuitlacoche/huitlacoche (this is where I first tasted the “Mexican truffle.”) I am still working on my courage when it comes to seafood -so occasionally I ask them if they can substitute it with something else and they have always gracefully acceded.

And for those of you who don’t like cactus salad, it’s because you haven’t tried the one here. It’s served with tomato, cilantro, onion, avocado and olive oil –as good as the one my dear friend Anabel makes (I have to say that by law.)

Ensalada de nopal

I’ve looked at their seafood menu and it has many appealing choices: shrimp with achiote, mushrooms, cactus, and guajillo chile, sea bass in a pasilla chile sauce with plantain -a food that by law, all Panamanians must love, so I’m all over that. And even though I haven’t had any of their seafood selections yet, I feel motivated to give them a try this year.

One of the dishes that was recommended by everyone who works there, is the filet mignon in a chipotle sauce. It is served on top of a tortilla, covered in Mexican manchego, and it comes with a potato purée and vegetables. Even though I am not a fan of melted cheese on my food, it was the perfect complement to the spicy smoky flavor of the chipotle.

Other options for meat lovers are: pork chop with achiote and chile de árbol in a prickly pear sauce with mescal, rack of lamb with hibiscus sauce, ancho chile and rice with cuitlacoche, or medallions of baked pork leg in a pistachio sauce, are some of the options.

Trilogía de moles: rojo, verde, y amarillo

Trilogía de moles: rojo, verde, y amarillo

But the main reason to come here is to eat moles and drink tequilas. They have a chef just for the moles, and everyone’s favorite is the mole poblano -if you have no idea what to pick, this is what I recommend. You may order it with chicken or pork (I prefer pork) and it’s absolutely delicious (as good as mine); although the Oaxacan mole negro (that you can have with duck breast) comes in a close second.

Some of the other moles are the mole rojo (with pasilla, ancho and guajillo chiles), the rosa (walnuts and chipotle), the coloradito (guajillo chile, chocolate, and sesame) the verde (tomatillos, epazote, and serrano chile), the amarillo (with guajillo chile), pipián (pumpkin seeds), and natas (guajillo and puya chiles – a recipe from the 19th century.) And if you are in the mood for something different but familiar, I highly recommend the duck enchiladas in a prune mole (sounds weird, but it’s awesome).

Mole poblano

Mole poblano

For tasting tequilas (not pouring it down your throat), this is one of the best places to do it, and among the ones that you can enjoy here are their house tequilas: El Agave Artesanal from Los Altos de Jalisco. And for those of us who appreciate a smooth glass of tequila, their extra añejo is very friendly: it tickles your lips, its woodsiness is flirty not overwhelming, and its perfume reminds me of peanuts and vanilla, like a rainy day in Veracruz.

But the best thing is that while I sit here enjoying my day sipping tequila, I don’t have to worry that I will be used as a human cocktail shaker, and be terrorized by Alberto and the other waiters.


About Gugui Naters Amador

Amo a México, inspirada por San Pascual Bailón, pseudo-fotógrafa/poeta, pobresora rodeada de libros, traductora, runner, Eagle warrior
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19 Responses to Tequilería El Agave (no traumas here)

  1. lnaters says:

    this had made me so hungry, can’t wait to try this place

  2. Ah the TJ whistleblowers……I agree, it is an ordeal. Great review of a great restaurant.

  3. Love, love, LOVE this place! So glad you shared this online so more people can be exposed to the experience. The tequila tasting and the sangrita really make this an amazing place for bartenders like myself who enjoy the history and culture that ties into sharing drinks with friends.

  4. Markellito says:

    El Agave was so delicious! Thanks for showing us this place! It’s crazy how you can tour through Old Town so many times and miss a gem like this! And definitely try the entremeses surtido, just looking at the picture makes my mouthwater!

  5. Floyd Gamarra says:

    Is there a similar place in L.A.? Great writing as usual!

  6. Anabella Nopalita says:

    Everything there taste authentic and delicious!! I always have hard time picking what to eat, I want to eat everything in the menu, including desserts. I own to myself (as Mexican) the tequila tasting!! I’ll save my money for the next time…to eat lots of awesome food, taste lots tequilas and my taxi to take me home 🙂

  7. Krihste says:

    I remember when you took me there!! It was the first time I had mole- I think we tried them all.. and the tequila sampler also! That place is delicious and you just made me sooo homesick for it. That was the first time I had truly enjoyed and appreciated tequila in all it’s flavors. I love your description for extra añejo, “very friendly: it tickles your lips, its woodsiness is flirty not overwhelming, and its perfume reminds me of peanuts and vanilla, like a rainy day in Veracruz”. Who would not want to be all over that after readings such a sentence?! It sounds so fantastical. I hope this is one of our first stops when I get home!

    • Gugui Naters Amador says:

      You know where we will be spending the entire day catching up once you move back to this continent!

  8. Paula Smedes says:

    I am, once again, amazed at your ability to draw a picture so vivid that I can almost taste the food. I can’t wait to try it.

  9. I remember going here on our final exam day…The entremeses surtidos was a delicious plate. So flavorful! We laughed, we cried, and we talked Gabo! Such good memories 🙂 My 21st birthday is coming up in March, and after reading this article I am convinced that I must go here and eat mole poblano and taste tequilas!!

  10. am says:

    I like the Disneyland environment, because it’s the closest I feel to culture and the outside world in SD (sad isn’t it). Ok, so I have not had time to go out since the New Year, but next weekend mole poblano here I come.

    Thank you for the delicious and poetic articles! Love them.

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