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.
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…?
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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).
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.