Fun run for the bor­der

Pasatiempo - - RESTAURANT REVIEW - Alex Heard

Many years ago, in the mid-1970s, my par­ents came back from a trip to New Mex­ico with puz­zling re­ports about the Mex­i­can food they’d sam­pled in Santa Fe. It sounded heav­ier, hot­ter, and soupier than what we were used to in our small Kansas town, Gar­den City, where there was (and still is) a pretty good Mex­i­can restau­rant called El Zarape. It was opened in 1967 by a lo­cal cou­ple named Phyl­lis and Manuel Garcia, and Phyl­lis knew what she was do­ing, serv­ing up tempt­ing en­chi­ladas, tacos, tostadas, gordi­tas, stuffed sopaip­il­las, and much more. I was finicky about this stuff at first (mopey teenager), but I grew to love it.

Back then, I had no idea what Mom and Dad were talk­ing about, but I do now. Ob­vi­ously, they’d gone to a North­ern New Mex­ico restau­rant, and what­ever they or­dered prob­a­bly came smoth­ered in green or red chile and lots of melted cheese. El Zarape’s style, which was the norm in many Mex­i­can restau­rants, was to serve what you’d or­dered rel­a­tively neat, let­ting you add as much hot sauce or salsa as you wanted. This distinc­tion of­ten divides restau­rant-go­ers. Over the years, I’ve met many peo­ple who sim­ply don’t care for the lake-of-sauce ap­proach in the cui­sine of North­ern New Mex­ico. I’ve split the dif­fer­ence by lik­ing both, but I’m al­ways on the look­out for places that do things in the familiar El Zarape way.

There’s no doubt where El Agave fits in: It’s Mex­i­can, not New Mex­i­can. It oc­cu­pies the old San Q space in Burro Al­ley, and when you en­ter, you’ll see som­breros and brightly colored blan­kets on the walls, along with painted mu­rals of Mex­i­can street scenes and agave fields. You’ll find ta­bles, booths, and a fes­tive spirit, es­pe­cially on week­end nights, when there’s live pi­ano mu­sic in a nar­row sec­ond dining room con­nected to the main space, which faces Burro Al­ley. The dom­i­nant fea­ture in the front room is a com­pact U-shaped bar — but be aware that, for now, El Agave only has a li­cense to serve beer and wine, so this isn’t a go-to for tra­di­tional mar­gar­i­tas.

The menu is a six-page, small-type, four-color pro­duc­tion that con­tains dozens of lunch and din­ner of­fer­ings in over­lap­ping cat­e­gories like Que­sadil­las & More, Bur­ri­tos, Com­bi­na­tions, Veg­e­tar­ian, From the Grill, Steak, Seafood, House Spe­cials, Chicken, and Other Items. El Agave has only been open a few months, so I was con­fused when I looked at all th­ese choices: How did they come out of the gate serv­ing so many things? A con­ver­sa­tion with the owner, Hec­tor Vene­gas, cleared that up. Be­fore com­ing to Santa Fe, he was in the food busi­ness in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he’d been in­volved in a fam­ily en­ter­prise called Los Tres Magueyes. Much of what hap­pens at El Agave was brought straight in from Raleigh, right down to the de­sign of the printed menu.

Dur­ing a re­cent visit, for din­ner on a Fri­day night, my com­pan­ion and I opted to stay up front, where it’s qui­eter, and we started with the agave-wine-based mar­gar­i­tas. Th­ese come in two fla­vors — lime and mango — which, not sur­pris­ingly, are both too sweet. Un­til El Agave gets a hard-liquor li­cense, you’re bet­ter off order­ing from its 16-choice beer menu. The brews on of­fer are mostly mass-pro­duc­tion brands like Corona, Te­cate, Paci­fico, and Ne­gra Mod­elo.

I liked the com­bi­na­tion plate I tried — num­ber 18 off a list to­tal­ing 30 — which con­tained a beef en­chi­lada, a chalupa with re­fried beans, and a chile rel­leno. The beef en­chi­lada in par­tic­u­lar took me back to my El Zarape days. It was small and filled with sa­vory ground beef, ac­com­pa­nied by a sauce that tasted like it was made us­ing blended chili pow­der in­stead of New Mex­ico red chile. My friend or­dered tacos filled with car­ni­tas. Mak­ing real car­ni­tas is an elab­o­rate en­deavor. I don’t know what process El Agave uses, but the re­sults were good, with the moist and crispy tex­ture you want.

Dur­ing a sec­ond trip, for lunch, I tried a sin­cronizada, which is a close cousin to a que­sadilla. Be­tween two flour tor­tillas, the cooks had placed mildly spicy minced white­meat chicken that didn’t have much taste. Cheese, green onions, jalapeños, and av­o­cado added some in­ter­est, but over­all it was a dull of­fer­ing. My friend, a veg­e­tar­ian, was pleased with her or­der: a potato bur­rito, a cheese en­chi­lada, and a chalupa. We each tried a salad as well. Both were too let­tuce-heavy, and hers, the gua­camole salad, didn’t have enough guac to pro­vide an ap­peal­ing bal­ance.

The bot­tom line is that El Agave can be hit-or-miss, but there’s some­thing gen­er­ally ap­peal­ing about it, in­clud­ing the no­tice­ably low prices. My main crit­i­cism is that the in­gre­di­ents, like in that sin­cronizada, don’t al­ways seem top-shelf. I’d be happy to pay more if they were.

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