Fun run for the border
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.