El Agave – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

El Agave Mexican Restaurant in Rio Rancho’s Lujan Plaza

“Why, this here sauce is made in New York City!”
“New York City? Git a rope!”

No matter how broad-minded we may perceive ourselves to be, most of us are burdened by covert biases and prejudices that reveal themselves at inopportune times.  One of mine was divulged during my inaugural visit to El Agave Mexican Restaurant in Rio Rancho.  After being greeted warmly by effusive hostess Lilly Venegas (who could not possibly have been nicer), I began my usual “twenty questions” routine to learn everything I could about the restaurant.  Beaming with pride, she told me her brother-in-law had owned and operated two Mexican restaurants for more than twenty years in Raleigh, North Carolina. 

North Carolina!  North Carolina!  My mind raced to the circa 1980s Pace Picante Sauce commercial in which several hungry cowboys threatened to string up the cook for serving a “foreign” salsa (translation: not made in Texas).  To be fair, my ridiculous notion that good Mexican food couldn’t possibly be prepared in North Carolina was based on having lived and traveled in the Deep South for eight years.  During those octennial years of Mexican food deprivation, we found only one restaurant in Dixie which served good Mexican food.  We didn’t find any good Mexican food in New Orleans, Atlanta or Nashville.  We should have visited Raleigh!

Chipotle Salsa and Chips, both Housemade

For nearly two decades, Hector Venegas and his family owned and operated Los Tres Magueyes, winning over Raleigh with their delightful array of authentic Mexican dishes.  The Venegas family didn’t “dumb” down their Mexican food as so many restaurants in the Deep South tended to do when we dwelled in Dixie.  Confident that the more savvy citizenry of New Mexico would love the authenticity and deliciousness of their fare, they left the menu completely intact–even retaining the leather-bound menu cover emblazoned with the name of their restaurants in North Carolina.

As in Raleigh, the Venegas family owns and operates two Mexican restaurants.  Both are christened El Agave.  The original operates in Santa Fe in the famous Burro Alley.  It’s been pleasing palates since 2015 and is owned by elder scion Hector Vinegas.  His brother Carlos and lovely bride Lilly launched the second instantiation of El Agave in Rio Rancho in October, 2017.  My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver was there three days later and loved it.  He was confident I would, too.

Left: Mole Ranchero | Right: Camarones A La Crema

If you haven’t seen El Agave during your travels through the City of Vision, it’s probably because its storefront doesn’t face heavily trafficked Rio Rancho Boulevard. Instead, it’s set back on the northeast corner of the timeworn Lujan Plaza shopping center which also houses Namaste and Stack House Barbecue. The same obfuscated corner where El Agave is situated was once home to such short-lived eateries as immediate predecessor El Maguey in addition to Ahh Sushi, Relish (although the original in Albuquerque remains a city favorite), Pastrami & Things and other restaurants. It’s a tough location in which to succeed.

Carlos and Lilly are in it for the long haul.  They recognize the challenges of operating a restaurant just a bit off the well beaten-and-eaten path.  Moreover, they realize they have to cultivate customer loyalty one guest at a time, that they have to prove themselves with every  single dish they prepare and serve.  With a menu featuring virtually every familiar Mexican dish as well as some unique specialties, El Agave has a great chance to succeed.  All it needs is to be discovered.  Visit once and it’s a certainty you’ll return time and again.

Refried Beans and Spanish Rice with Corn Tortillas

As you peruse the menu, Lilly will ferry over a basket of chips and plastic molcajete of salsa to your table.  Both are made on the premises first thing in the morning as are the terrific corn tortillas accompanying many entrees.  The chips and salsa are first rate, among the very best in the metro.  What distinguishes this salsa from so many others is that it’s made with chipotles, the smoky dried jalapeño.  With a depth of flavor and kick of piquancy, this salsa is addictive–and it’s as good as the exemplar chipotle-based salsa served at the Plaza Cafe South Side in Santa Fe. To think Raleigh had such a delightful salsa before Rio Rancho did gave me hope the rest of the menu would deliver, too.

Unable to decide between the Mole Ranchero and Camarones A La Crema, I asked Lilly to surprise me.  The surprise was the Carlos was willing to prepare a half portion of both.  Now that’s the type of service that cultivates loyalty.  This pleasurable combination was served with refried beans topped with melted white cheese, Spanish rice and four hot corn tortillas.   The Mole Ranchero, reputedly one of the easiest moles to prepare (though still very complex) with fewer ingredients than other moles, was a delicious and pleasant surprise in that it wasn’t overly sweet as some mole tends to be.  That mole covered a moist, tender sliced chicken breast. 

Even better than the Mole Ranchero was the Camarones A La Crema (grilled shrimp topped with a savory cream sauce concocted from chipotles, sour cream and spices).  The grilled shrimp had a snap of freshness with a delicate flavor tinged with the smokiness of the grilling process.  It’s a perfect foil for the rich cream sauce with its faint smokiness and sour-savory notes.  You’ll be grateful for the steamy corn tortillas with which you’ll sop up every bit of that delicious sauce. 

If like me, your initial inclination is to dismiss a Mexican food restaurant that came from North Carolina, El Agave will quickly change your mind.  It’s a very good, very authentic and absolutely delightful little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that’s as Mexican as a Mexican restaurant can be.

El Agave Mexican Restaurant
1520 Deborah Road
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 896-8006
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 22 January 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
BEST BET: Camarones A La Crema, Horchata, Chipotle Salsa and Chips, Mole Ranchero
RESTAURANT REVIEW #1022

El Agave Mexican Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Taqueria El Paisa – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Taqueria El Paisa, Maybe New Mexico’s Very Best and Most Authentic Mexican Taqueria

The immediacy of a taco, handed to you hot from grill and comal, can’t be equaled. 
You can stand there and eat yourself silly with one taco after another,
each made fresh for you and consumed within seconds. 
A great taco rocks with distinct tastes that roll on and on,
like a little party on your tongue, with layers of flavor and textures:
juicy, delicious fillings, perfectly seasoned; the taste of the soft corn tortilla;
a morsel of salty cheese and finally, best of all,
the bright explosion of a freshly-made salsa that suddenly ignites and unites everything on your palate.
At the end of our two or three-bite taco you just want to repeat the experience until you are sated.”
~Deborah Schneider, 1000 Tacos | Mexico, One Bite At A Time

If you’re wondering why such a heartfelt expression of sheer appreciation and unfettered love has been so eloquently conveyed about something as humble and–some would say pedestrian–as the taco, perhaps you’ve haven’t heard about the taco evolution-slash-revolution taking America by storm. And no, I’m not talking about Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco Supreme (that’s a mutation, not an evolution). Nor am I talking about artisan cooks exploiting the limitless possibilities of what is essentially a rather simple concept–a corn or flour tortilla stuffed with sundry and delicious ingredients.

The small dining room at Taqueria El Paisa

To be sure, a paean could be written about the creative use of multi-ethnic ingredients in constructing tacos bursting with flavor profiles heretofore unexplored. Judges and guests alike certainly waxed poetic about the fusion evolution vividly on display at the 2015 Taste of Rio Rancho where Street Food Blvd earned three first place awards (best appetizer, best entree and People’s Choice) by showcasing its unique tacos. Over the years we’ve also been enthralled by temptingly toothsome tacos at such exemplars of cutting edge cooking as Pasion Latin Fusion, Sophia’s Place and others, but none of them exemplify the taco evolution/revolution of which I write.  

No, my friends, the taco evolution/revolution of which I write is the widespread availability of the humble Mexican taquerias which have exploded across the culinary landscape over the past two decades or so. Though not nearly as ubiquitous as Taco Bell (which Anthony Bourdain would probably say is as widespread as herpes), the number of quality Mexican taquerias across the fruited plain might surprise you. These taquerias have introduced teeming masses yearning to eat well to the concept that sometimes simple, fresh and relatively unadorned is best. Most of these taquerias are the antithesis of fancy, but they’re paragons of deliciousness.

The exterior patio (now enclosed) at Taqueria El Paisa

For many savvy taco aficionados across the Duke City, the taco trek begins and ends on the west side of Bridge Boulevard scant yards from where it crosses the Rio Grande. That’s where you’ll find Taqueria El Paisa, a delicious little slice of Mexico in the Land of Enchantment. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, El Paisa maintains an operating schedule that would exhaust many of us. It opens its doors when some of us are still sleeping (7AM) and closes at midnight, long after we’ve gone to bed.

Despite its diminutive digs, El Paisa is heavily trafficked, its Lilliputian dining room accommodating only a few diners while a sprawling covered porch handles the overflow crowds. And they do overflow! Just how good is this taqueria?

  • According to an article entitled “15 Restaurants in New Mexico That Will Blow Your Mind” published in the Movoto Insider blog it’s so good, it “will ruin all other Mexican food for you.” That’s an audacious claim considering the surfeit of superb Mexican restaurants across the Land of Enchantment, but some devotees won’t go anywhere else for their tacos.
  • In 2017, Business Insider teamed up with Yelp to “find out which restaurants, trucks, and food stands are serving up the very best tacos in America.” Ranked 43rd was Albuquerque’s El Paisa where even a trencherman can eat well for a few pesos. 
  • in 2016, BuzzFeed compiled its own list of the most popular taco spot in every state. Popularity was measured using an algorithm considering the number of reviews plus the star rating for every business on Yelp. New Mexico’s most popular taco comes from El Paisa in Albuquerque. One astute devotee commented on Yelp, “The only comparison is the street tacos in downtown Puerto Vallarta, because this is as authentic as it gets.”

Aguas Frescas: Pina and Melon

While it bears the name “Paisa,” a diminutive of “Paisano” which translates from Spanish to “countryman,” diners of all stripes and colors are welcome here. It’s a friendly milieu in which it may help to know a little Spanish, but it’s not absolutely requisite. You and the servers at the counter can make yourselves mutually understood even if it means pointing at the menu (which is also in Spanish). That menu hangs to the right of the counter where you place your order and you’ll espy it the second you walk in.

At first glance, the menu may appear to be rather limited. Its offerings are categorized into burritos, gorditas, tacos, tortas and aguas frescas. The variety increases exponentially because you’re able to have your tacos, burritos, gorditas and tortas constructed from the same basic ingredients (al pastor, buche, barbacoa, carne asada, etc.). For example, not only can you have a taco al pastor, you can order a burrito stuffed with the same al pastor pork. If the menu doesn’t make you drool, the “cheap eats” pricing structure just might. Two can eat rather well (and probably take some home) for around twenty dollars.

Three Tacos: El Pastor, Carnitas and Carne Asada

1 February 2015: In addition to eating well, you can drink merrily. Not only does El Paisa offer Mexican Coke in a bottle (which is sweetened with real sugar and not the high-fructose corn syrup used in America), you’ll find some of the very best aguas frescas in town.  Served from large barrel-shaped containers, these refreshing beverages actually taste like the fruits (or almond milk and cinnamon in the case of horchata) from which they’re derived.  The melon, platano (banana), sandia (watermelon) and piña (pineapple) are absolutely amazing!  The accommodating wait staff may even acquiesce if you ask them nicely to give you a mix of any two.  Banana and pineapple make a wonderful combination.  Simply amazing!

1 February 2015: So are the tacos although the more appropriate descriptor would be “muy ricos,” the Mexican term used for food items which are “very delicious.”   The quality of riquisimo (even more delicious) begins with the soft corn tortillas in which all other ingredients are nestled.  A pronounced corn flavor coupled with an inherently pliable texture make them the perfect vessel for the ingredients of your choice, topped if you desire with chopped onions and cilantro.  

Chile Verde con Puerco Burrito

1 February 2015: Four different salsas of varying piquancy are also available, but the more incendiary among them will serve more to obfuscate other flavors than to ameliorate them.  The salsa offering perhaps the most refreshingly pleasant and just right heat level may be the tomatillo-jalpeño salsa which you might be tempted to chug.  It’s very good!  You won’t want anything masking the glorious flavor of the meats, especially the al pastor.   That the al pastor is so delicious was no surprise, but its just slightly crispy texture (not quite chicharron-like, but in the vicinity) was a pleasant surprise.  The other meats (carne asada and carnitas) we sampled had similar qualities and were equally enjoyable.  

1 February 2015: Burritos are of the hand-held variety and are about seven inches in length.  Each tightly-wrapped flour tortilla plays host to some of the very best burritos in Albuquerque.  You’ll exclaim “Holy Mole” at your first bite of the mole burrito, love-me-tender tendrils of pork prepared in a complex and numerous blend of ingredients, some with a discernible sweetness and all coalescing to provide a back-of-the-throat heat you’ll enjoy.  It’s an amazing mole made even more impressive by its low price.  It’s not every Mexican restaurant which serves a chile relleno burrito so if you see it on the menu, you’re well advised to try it.  In contrast to the mole which is dominated by sweet notes, the chile relleno burrito has a pleasant bite. It won’t water your eyes, but your tongue and the back of your throat will feel its bite.

Ceviche

19 June 2015: There are so many Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque offering ceviche that sometimes the only thing distinguishing one from another isn’t the freshness and flavor of the seafood, but the influence of citrus.  Some border on an almost lip-pursing lime-infused flavor while others have a much lesser presence of citrus juices.  There’s comfort in the consistency of getting what you’re expecting at virtually every Mexican restaurant.  El Paisa’s rendition of Ceviche is the first to surprise me in months.  At first glance, it resembles every other ceviche and in composition, it has all the standard ingredients: fish, chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro and avocado slices atop a crispy corn tortilla.  What distinguishes this one is the tomatoes which are wholly unlike the artificially ripened, flavorless variety so prevalent everywhere.  These tomatoes have a flavor profile very much like a sweet tomato jam.  It’s a pleasant departure from the usual.

19 June 2015: When pining for a delicious sandwich, the notion of finding one at a Mexican restaurant doesn’t always jump to the surface.  Perhaps it should, especially if you’ve become budget conscious and tired of parting with your Alexander Hamiltons.  In Mexico, just as in the United States, the sandwich has become a ubiquitous staple.  What it hasn’t become is unaffordable.  For just about what you’d pay for half a sub at one of those abysmal chains, you can get a torta stuffed with sundry ingredients and you’ll wonder why you sunk your children’s inheritance at Subway.  El Paisa offers a phalanx of tantalizing tortas,  Among them is the torta de jamon, a savory, crusty bolillo engorged with two slices of fried jamon, a thin Mexican ham; lettuce; tomatoes; cheese and avocadoes.  It’s moist, delicious and flavorful.  Frankly, it’s got everything you crave in a sandwich and so much more.

Torta Al Pastor

10 June 2015:  Gorditas which translate from Spanish to “fatties” are a popular street food in Mexico and have gained a foothold in the culinary culture of its bordering states.  Loosely described as “flat bread sandwiches,” gorditas are constructed from masa (corn or flour) and are about the size of the corn tortillas used for tacos only much thicker.  They’re usually split open and stuffed with sundry ingredients.  El Paisa’s gorditas are terrific and they can be stuffed with any of the wondrous ingredients with which you can stuff a burrito or sandwich.  The al pastor is my early favorite. 

20 April 2016: When my friends and frequent dining companions Larry “the professor with the perspicacious palate” McGoldrick and the Dazzling Deanell met me for lunch at El Paisa I welcomed them with “Bienvenidos a Mexico.”  It isn’t far from the truth.  Both recognize that El Paisa is as authentically Mexico as you’ll find in the Land of Enchantment.  Among the buffet table of items we shared (for a ridiculously low price), was a quesadilla for which we requested an al pastor filling.  Larry called it the very best quesadilla he’s ever had while Deanell was surprised at just how good a quesadilla can be.  Stuffed with queso (naturally), beans and al pastor, this quesadilla is indeed an adventure in delicious, perhaps equal to the quesadilla synchronizada  at La Familiar as Albuquerque’s very best.  This tortilla treasure is accompanied by cheesy and delicious beans and a rich guacamole.

Quesadilla Al Pastor with Beans and Guacamole

Taqueria El Paisa is the real thing–as authentic a taqueria as you’ll find in Old Mexico without pretentions or compromise.  It’s the home of riquisimo!  

Taqueria El Paisa
820 Bridge Blvd, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 452-8997
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 15 January 2018
1st VISIT: 1 February 2015
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 22
COST: $
BEST BET: Mole Burrito, Chile Relleno Burrito, Al Pastor Burrito, Verde en Puerco Burrito, Carne Asada Tacos, Al Pastor Tacos, Carnitas Taco, Gordita de Al Pastor, Torta De Jamon, Tostada De Ceviche

El Paisa Restaurante Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

El Taco Tote – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Taco Tote on Central Avenue

As we perused the colorful menu hanging on the wall at El Taco Tote, my friends Captain Tuttle, Bob of the Village Of Los Ranchos and I pondered the veracity of images depicting gargantuan tacos brimming with glistening meat and sundry toppings. Could these super-sized behemoths possibly be as large as pictured? Perhaps, as in “objects in the mirror may appear closer than they are,” these tacos only appear large in photos. Captain Tuttle, a semi-regular at Taco Tote, confirmed that the truth is somewhere between the perfectly posed tacos portrayed on the menu and those actually served. He recalled from previous visits, being served tacos with as much as four ounces of meat. That’s as much as McDonald’s vaunted Quarter-Pounder.

Considering most taquerias nowadays tend to prefer (and proffer) small tacos, we wondered if Taco Tote’s largesse was an accommodation to denizens of the fruited plain who crave and expect Brobdingnagian portions. We’re not the only ones who’ve pondered this Jack Handy level deep thought. In an April, 2010 edition of “Ask A Mexican,” a reader asked columnist Gustavo Arellano “why do those tiny little Mexican tacos exist? Does anyone prefer getting 3 tiny tacos instead of 1 good sized one?”  Arellano clarified “It’s in the United States where the taco has been super-sized. In Mexico, and in Mexican communities in los Estados Unidos , tacos continue to be best appreciated small–four bites maximum. A taco is meant to be a snack, a bit, not a full meal. If we wanted something bigger, we’d order a plate or a bowl–or, better yet, order a plate/bowl make our own impromptu tacos.” So there!

Taco Tote Doesn’t Build A Better Taco…You do!

Alas, smaller tacos don’t necessarily translate to smaller prices.  In fact, Arellano has observed that “restaurants always overprice tacos, even when they’re substantially bigger than the small tortillas.”    He laments further that one of his favorite taquerias commits the “cardinal sin of charging more than a dollar for a taco. I don’t care how great or big a taco is–a taco is not worth more than a dollar ever”.  Much has changed–including the hyper-inflated cost of food–since 2010 when he made that declaration.  The price of Taco Tote’s offerings might just send him into sticker shock.  My initial assessment was that the price of tacos is nearing that of burgers, then I remembered just how expensive burgers have become.

With signage boasting “We don’t build a better taco…You do!,” Taco Tote’ operating model differs from that of many of its competitors where tacos are constructed for you.  You truly can have it your way at Taco Tote!  Your way starts with the filling of your choice: sirloin, arrachera (skirt steak), grilled chicken, bistek (inside round beef), barbacoa (cheek meat), fish, adobada pork (pork marinated in traditional Mexican dried chilies and spices), adobada chicken, shrimp, al pastor, carne asada, tripitas (small intestines) and brocheta (sirloin sautéed with green chilies and onions.  There’s only one vegetarian offering, a mushroom and veggie medley sautéed with soy sauce and “special spices.” 

The famous Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos Stands by the Salsa Bar

El Taco Tote celebrates the Mexican tradition of “street food,” a term which usually conjures up images of simple street stands serving up steamy, fresh corn or flour tortillas enveloping seared meats, veggies or seafood topped with sundry condiments and salsas.  As with street stands throughout Mexico, El Taco Tote doesn’t offer a New Mexican style taco with ground beef, lettuce and tomatoes.  These are tacos as authentic as you’ll find in their birthplace of Juarez, Mexico.  Founded in 1988, Taco Tote quickly opened its first branch restaurant in El Paso before expanding to the Duke City.  Today two dozen restaurants grace Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Mexico.

Place your order then saunter over to the condiment bar which is where your taco becomes a “tote” (Mexican slang for large) as you cram it with onions, cucumber, cilantro, grilled hot peppers and more.  Six salsas, all of which pack a potent punch, are also available, but be forewarned, a couple of them might require a fire extinguisher.  The pequin chile talamada isn’t quite hot enough to remove the enamel from your teeth, but it might burn your tongue a bit.  Even the guacamole salsa has a bit of a bite.  You’ll be impressed by the fresh quality of the condiment bar where everything appeared to be homemade.

Chiles Rellenos with Beans and Rice

During our inaugural venture in 2006, my Kim and I fell in love with the pickled red onions which went especially well with the fish tacos.  El Taco Tote’s fish tacos are  akin to those you might find in the landlocked regions of Mexico where the fish is fried then nestled into warm corn tortillas.  It’s then up to you to dress those tacos with the condiments of your choice.  With fish tacos, you have to exercise some caution because unlike some meats, not everything goes well with fish.  Bob enjoyed his inaugural foray into the fish taco arena undressed.  No, not him.  His fish taco.  That’s the beauty of Taco Tote.  You’re free to create…or not to. 

21 November 2017: Despite the promise of titanic tacos, Captain Tuttle and I fell prey to Taco Tote’s clever of point-of-sale-marketing ploy.  When we got to the cash register, we espied a poster touting Taco Tote’s latest offering, Hatch chiles rellenos with refried beans and Spanish rice.  We just had to see for ourselves if these rellenos were as appetizing as the poster was appealing.  We should have stuck to tacos.  The rellenos were more than a bit on the mushy side, a result of having been fried in grease that just wasn’t hot enough.  Your intrepid blogger could barely finish one of the two rellenos on the plate.  Thankfully the tortillas and beans were quite good.

Unadorned Fish Taco

El Taco Tote’s corn and flour tortillas are made by hand, ostensibly the way they’ve been made in Mexico for hundreds of years. You can even watch these magical orbs being crafted thanks to the restaurant’s open kitchen design. Refried beans have a slight aftertaste of lard which also holds true to Mexican tradition. The Spanish rice is a bit on the dry side, but as regular readers know, Spanish rice rarely receives praise on this blog. Three aguas frescas–horchata, jamaica and melon) are available to wash down your victuals.

El Taco Tote describes itself as an “all fresh” restaurant, everything–from tortillas to its distinctive salsa bar–is made fresh every day, with no preservatives and with the best quality in produce, meats and ingredients.  In that salsa bar you’ll find everything you need to create your tacos your way.

El Taco Tote
4701 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 265-5188
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 21 November 2017
1ST VISIT: 2 June 2006
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fish Tacos, Horchata, Tacos Al Pastor

El Taco Tote Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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