El Agave Restaurante and Tequileria – San Diego, California

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El Agave Tequileria on the eastern fringes of Old Town San Diego

Tequila has long endured a legacy of scorn, derision and misinformation.  It’s  been a proving ground for manhood among frat boys downing shooters to show their mettle.  Urban myths and legends have long been believed of hallucinogenic worms at the bottom of the bottle.  Because of “ta-kill-ya” induced hangovers (usually the result of poor quality tequila), men with iron-cast constitutions have been known to swear off hard liquor.  With such a reputation, it’s no wonder tequila hasn’t been thought of as an adult beverage of choice for discerning drinkers.  

Times have changed.  In recent years, tequila has become a viable option for drinkers of sophisticated taste.  Credit this evolution of thinking to the Mexican government which–similar to what the French government did to bolster the image of Champagne and Cognac–has worked diligently to improve the image of its native beverage.  Stringent regulations have been instituted to ensure the authenticity and quality of tequila and it has been designated an “appellation of origin” which means true tequila can only be produced in a specific region of Mexico.  Premium tequilas, identified by the duration of the aging process, have entered the market, providing excellent choices for discerning drinkers.

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More than 2000 decanters of tequila line the walls and ceiling at El Agave Tequileria

The spiritual Mecca to which all aficionados of premium tequila pilgrimage is El Agave Tequileria on the fringes of Old Town San Diego. El Agave is a veritable museum featuring a display of more than 2,000 tequila brands, easily the largest collection of tequila bottles in America.  El Agave has been named the country’s top spot for tequila by the likes of Playboy and Gourmet magazines.  Its own brand, El Agave Artesanal, has earned a number of awards.

The tequilas form the backdrop for a commodious dining room where diners can experience the authentic flavors of “nouveau” Mexican cuisine.  As you dine, a decanter or ten will catch your eye and you’ll stand up to investigate the bottled curiosity.  We found, for example, some eight decanters in the shape of or depicting Pancho Villa, an irony because Generalissimo Villa was a notorious teetotaler who had drunks in his army shot as cowards and traitors.   Hmmm, perhaps such an approach might help with New Mexico’s notorious DUI problem.

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Three types of salsa and chips

El Agave is appropriately situated above the Old Town Liquor Store which (no coincidence here) offers some of the city’s best selections of tequila.  During our inaugural visit we had the tequila museum turned dining room to ourselves.  Every other diner opted for the patio which provides panoramic views of Old Town San Diego.  El Agave is the antithesis of so many touristy giant margarita and fish taco Mexican restaurants in the city.  It’s got an air of sophistication and class lacking in some of the Mexican “joints” in the frenetic Old Town area, many of whom seem to “mail it in” for the tourists.

Jim Millington, a long-time friend of this blog and one of its most prolific providers of valuable feedback, introduced us to El Agave.  He also provided savvy recommendations on what we should order.  Jim and I must be distantly related because the dish he recommended would probably have been the one I would have ordered.  Maybe there’s a little bit of gastronomic karma involved here.

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Entremes Surtido: appetizer platter which includes guacamole, shrimp and crab empanadas, assorted sopecitos of cochinita; cuitlacoche and shrimp in chipotle; three beef taquitos; four mini quesadillas–two with mushrooms and two with poblano chile strips; four rolled taquitos stuffed with potatoes and homemade chorizo

As we perused the menu for an entree with which my Kim would fall madly in love, we enjoyed the complimentary (and wholly non-traditional) basket of chips and three salsas.  The salsas are made from green tomatillo, black beans and Guajillo chile respectively.  Surprisingly our favorite was the black bean salsa.  Though it had no discernible bite, it was redolent with flavor and served warm.  The Guajillo and tomato-based salsa was the most piquant of the three and the one which most resembled a New Mexican salsa.  All three salsas are quite good.

The Entremes (appetizer) Surtido (assortment) is the most costly starter on the menu, but it’s also the appetizer which will introduce you to the largest variety of Mexican starters.  Bear in mind that El Agave boasts of “nouveau” Mexican cuisine which means it doesn’t hold firmly to tradition, but rather expands upon it through the use of innovative ingredient combinations and culinary techniques.  This means even the entremeses aren’t the de rigueur no surprise appetizers found at too many Mexican restaurants.

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Enchiladas de Pato: two shredded duck enchiladas bathed in sun-dried prune mole sauce and served with El Agave rice

The Entremes Surtido, a turkey platter sized offering, features a family-sized assortment.  At the center of the platter is a large dollop of lime-infused guacamole, among the most fresh and delicious we’ve had.  The shrimp and crab empanadas are also a winner with notes of briny freshness. Perhaps our favorite were the three sopecitos, three fried breads each topped with different ingredients in a chipotle sauce.  The cochinita and especially the cuitlacoche (corn smut) stand out.  Four quesadillas–two with mushrooms and two with poblano chile strips–were more “airy” than ingredient and flavor packed while four rolled taquitos accentuated the flavor melding of potatoes and homemade chorizo.  The danger with ordering a platter such as this one is you might not have much room left for your main entree and you’ll certainly want to enjoy every morsel of your main course.

That’s especially true if you order the enchiladas de pato two shredded duck enchiladas bathed in a sun-dried prune mole sauce.  It’s the dish Jim recommended.  Two large corn tortillas, redolent with the flavor of fresh corn, are engorged with shredded duck meat then topped with a spectacular mole.  To far too many diners in America, “mole” is just the four letters which complete the avocado dish of guacamole.  To discerning diners, mole is a sophisticated and complex sauce, the preparation of which is often laborious and unique.  The sun-dried prune mole sauce is made from dried chile peppers, ground nuts and spices, Mexican chocolate, shredded tortillas and a variety of other ingredients.  This mole is very rich, flavorful and complex with subtle notes of its constituents sneaking through. The duck (pato) meat is mostly lean with just a bit of fat for flavor. Only sharing this meal with Jim and his beloved child bride would have made it better.

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Filete Al Tequila: Filet mignon in a tequila, red wine reduction sauce topped with cambray onions and mushrooms; served with mashed potatoes and vegetable medley

For my Kim whose preferences in exotic foods lean toward the safe and uninteresting, it took just a bit of Kissingeresque diplomacy to convince her the entree to order was the Filete Al Tequila, a filet mignon in a tequila and red wine reduction topped with cambray onions and mushrooms.  This dish is a stupendous success!  If you’re used to filet mignon being prefaced by “petite” on the menu, you’ll be pleased to see two stacked slabs of sumptuous, tender and lean beef, one atop the other.  The filet is nearly fork tender with nary a hint of fat.  With or without the tequila-red wine reduction sauce, the filet is extremely flavorful, as good a steak as we’ve had in recent travels.  The filet is served with mashed potatoes (wonderful for sopping up the sauce) and a vegetable medley, but not the dreaded succotash medley school children despise.  This medley featured zucchini and asparagus, both smoked and delicious.

Dessert isn’t quite an after-thought at El Agave, but with only four selections, it’s not the most interesting post-prandial menu either.  The pastel tres leches is a very good choice.  Rich, decadent and moist courtesy of the three milks-sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream–that make up this cake, it is light in flavor, but not in calorie and fat content.  This tres leches cake is cut and served round with decorative raspberry and chocolate drizzles on the plate.

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Pastel Tres Leches

Just as tequila has become a serious drinker’s adult beverage of choice, El Agave is where discerning diners go when they’re tired of the same old fish tacos, burritos, beans and cheesy glop and they want something sophisticated, interesting and delicious. This is as far a departure from the touristy Taco Bell type restaurants as you’ll find.  

El Agave Restaurante and Tequileria
2304 San Diego Avenue
San Diego (Old Town), California
(619) 220-0692
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 2 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 25
BEST BET: Enchiladas de Pato, Filete Al Tequila, Entremes Surtido, Salsa and Chips

El Agave on Urbanspoon

El Guero Canelo – Tucson, Arizona

El Guero Canelo for the quintessential Tucson food, the Sonoran hot dog

El Guero Canelo for the best in the quintessential Tucson food, the Sonoran hot dog

If asked to participate in a word association exercise, any well-traveled foodie undergoing psychoanalysis would find it easy to name the first food that comes to mind when a city is mentioned: Philadelphia – the Philly cheesesteak sandwich; Boston – baked beans; Chicago – Italian beef sandwiches; San Francisco – sourdough bread; Milwaukee – butter burgers; San Antonio, New Mexico – green chile cheeseburgers.  You get the point.  Some foodies might not know that Philadelphia is the birthplace of liberty, but they know about Geno’s and Pat’s King of Steaks and their decades-long battle for Philly cheesesteak supremacy.

You might find it strange that seemingly pedestrian foods would be the defining cuisine of burgeoning cosmopolitan cities, historically significant metropolises and tiny hamlets in the desert, but it’s not solely foodies who associate foods with places. Anthropologist Maribel Alvarez of the University of Arizona says the “quintessential food of Tucson” is the Sonoran hot dog, explaining that instead of taking guests to high-end restaurants, locals will bring their out-of-towners to one of the city’s purveyors of Sonoran hot dogs.

Hot dogs, like baseball and barbecue, aren’t exclusively the domain of Americans any more.  In fact, they never were. Before you call that statement unpatriotic heresy, consider the evolution of the hot dog.  Two words synonymous with that American term–frankfurter and wiener–come from Frankfurt, Germany and Vienna, Austria respectively.  In Germany, pork sausages were served in buns similar to those used in hot dogs while Austrians preferred a sausage made of a pork and beef amalgam.

The colorful menu at El Guero Canelo has something for everyone

The colorful menu at El Guero Canelo has something for everyone

In her fabulous tome The Great American Hot Dog Book, my friend Becky Mercuri writes that many popular foods in Arizona reflect the cuisine of the neighboring Mexican state of Sonora.  Those influences go far and deep in Tucson where the Mexican food is quite dissimilar to the foods with which New Mexicans are intimately familiar.  Not even the humble hot dog escapes those far-reaching Sonoran influences.

The Hot Dog Book celebrates the tremendous diversity of hot dogs across the fruited plain, examining in loving tributes the many ways in which hot dogs are prepared across America.  Becky showcases the best and most popular hot dogs in every state, even including recipes you’ll want to replicate in your own kitchen.  It was only natural that she include as the Arizona selection, the Sonoran-style hot dogs served in such paragons of hot dog deliciousness as El Guero Canelo and BK Carne Asada and Hot Dogs.

Though true hot dog aficionados are well-acquainted with Sonoran-style hot dogs and the aforementioned purveyors non-pariel, in April, 2010, both attained a heretofore unparalleled national profile.  The April 6th episode of the Travel Channel’s Food Wars show pitted El Guero Canelo against BK Carne Asada and Hot Dogs in a delicious duel to determine the best Sonoran hot dogs in Tucson.  Later in the month, Saveur magazine profiled “Eat Street,” the nickname of Tucson’s 12th Avenue in which both are denizens.

Throngs of patrons frequent El Guero Canelo, more since a Food Wars episode aired in 2010

Throngs of patrons frequent El Guero Canelo, more since a Food Wars episode aired in 2010

More than one-hundred vendors ply the Sonoran-style hot dog trade in Tucson.  Known as “hotdogueros,” they offer a surprising number of inventive variations on the Sonoran hot dog.  Where none deviate is in wrapping bacon barbershop pole style around a wiener then griddling or grilling it until the bacon has practically caramelized into the wiener.  A phalanx of garnishes and toppings are then stuffed into a bolillo style Mexican bread that resembles a hot dog bun that hasn’t been completely split length-wise.

Perhaps it’s only appropriate that El Guero Canelo, a claimant to being the original purveyor of the Sonoran hot dog in Tucson, champions authenticity and tradition more than any competitor in town.  El Guero Canelo, which translates to “the cinnamon blonde” is the nickname of its founder and owner Daniel Conteras.  The Contreras family has about a century and a quarter’s worth of cumulative restaurant experience, starting their Tucson operation in a humble 6X8 taco stand.  Today the family operates two full-sized restaurants.

El Guero Canelo, the original Sonoran hot dog restaurant on the celebrated “Eat Street” is the most famous and popular.  Save for the indoor kitchen, the entire complex is situated in a well-shielded outdoor pavilion.  In the summer, cooling misters dispense a fine drizzle to provide respite from the scalding heat.  In the center of the pavilion is a condiment bar that, save for the sneeze guard and metalwork, features the three colors of the Mexican flag: green, white and red.   Seating is more functional than comfortable.

Two Sonoran Hot Dogs, one with beans and one without.

Two Sonoran Hot Dogs, one with beans and one without.

Hungry customers queue up in one of two lines to place their orders, a vast proportion of which are for Sonoran hot dogs.  Order numbers are called out both in English and Spanish  You probably have time to visit the condiment bar for sliced cucumbers, radishes, pico de gallo, grilled onions and more before your order is ready.  Dally too long at the condiment bar and you’re likely to hear a rather animated reminder that customers need to pay attention to the numbers on their order stubs.

There’s a reason El Guero Canelo serves more than 10,000 Sonoran hot dogs a week.  These hot dogs are mouth-watering–a thin dog gift-wrapped in bacon and nestled in a pillowy soft, slightly sweet bun where it shares room with pinto beans, grilled onions, chopped tomatoes, mayo and mustard then topped with a hint of jalapeño sauce.  The buns are imported from a bakery in Mexico which prepares them to the exacting specifications of the Contreras family.  You’ll be besotted at first bite–to the tune of at least two hot dogs per visit.

This hot dog is a wonderful study in contrasts: the sweetness of the bun and the smoky savoriness of the hot dog and bacon; the heat of the hot dog and the cool of the chopped tomato; the piquancy of the jalapeño sauce and the creaminess of the mayo.  Moreover, it’s a study in the appreciation of complex simplicity.  Being in close proximity to other diners, you’ll be privy to your neighbor’s swooning lustily at every bite.  This is truly an amazing hot dog!  During a week’s stay in Tucson, we visited El Guero Canelo three times and readers know I’m the least monogamous person in the world when it comes to repeat visits to restaurants.

Some of the fabulous complementary condiments at El Guero Canelo

Some of the fabulous complementary condiments at El Guero Canelo

You’ll want to wash down your meal with El Guero Canelo’s fabulous aguas frescas.  The jamaica (hibiscus), pina (pineapple) and tamarindo are refreshing and delicious though not homemade.

El Guero Canelo has been serving Tucson since 1993.  While that may not seem like a long time, it’s long enough for the restaurant to have established itself as a standard-setter for a cuisine that is beloved throughout the city.  It is a perennial winner of Tucson Weekly’s annual “best of” in the Sonoran hot dog category and now holder of Gil’s personal “best of” for any hot dog in America.

El Guero Canelo
5201 South 12th Avenue
Tucson, Arizona
(520) 295-9005
Web Site
1ST VISIT: 12 April 2010
LATEST VISIT: 28 June 2013
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 23
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Sonoran Hot Dogs, Aguas Frescas: Pina and Jamaica

El Guero Canelo on Urbanspoon

Tacos Mex Y Mariscos – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Taco Mex Y Mariscos on Fourth Street

Taco Mex Y Mariscos on Fourth Street

The taco landscape across the Duke City may well be a tale of two tacos. At one extreme we have Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila, the upscale, gourmet taco eatery situated in fashionable Nob Hill. In February, 2013, Zacatecas Tacos was named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation‘s “best new restaurant” in America honor. Zacatecas Tacos represents the “self-actualization” of tacos…tacos which are all they can be…tacos which have been elevated to the nth degree of creativity and deliciousness…tacos at a price point heretofore not achieved in Albuquerque by what is essentially a street food favorite.

The antithesis of Zacatecas Tacos & Tequila may well be Tacos Mex Y Mariscos, a timeworn restaurant on heavily trafficked Fourth Street.  Situated in an edifice which previously housed everything from a Thai restaurant to a sandwich shop, Tacos Mex Y Mariscos is as humble as Zacatecas Tacos is ostentatious.  It’s as much a “cheap eat” as Zacatecas is pricy.  The menu at Tacos Mex is simple and unsophisticated compared to the complex and urbane menu at Zacatecas.  From all conceivable appearances, Tacos Mex Y Mariscos is the pauper to Zacatecas’ prince.

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A busy Saturday afternoon at Taco Mex Y Mariscos

There’s even a socioeconomic dichotomy between the customers who habituate these two contradistinctive taquerias.  Zacatecas Tacos is frequented by a decidedly chic and urban crowd while Tacos Mex is  beloved by entire families, many of whom are immigrants more comfortable speaking in Spanish.  The one commonality between guests at both taquerias is a love for terrific tacos and they can get them at both Zacatecas Tacos and Tacos Mex.

The kicker is that one purveyor of terrific tacos isn’t any more authentic or more Mexican than the other.  Both honor Mexican culinary traditions and do so very well.   If there’s one word which best  distinguishes the tacos at Tacos Mex from the tacos at Zacatecas, it would be “campesino,” a word for a peasant or farmer.  The tacos proffered at Tacos Mex subscribe to the timeless campesino practice of using whatever ingredients were available at the time to feed the family, often through times of abject poverty and hardship.

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Tostadas de Ceviche Mixto

To less-than-intrepid diners, those ingredients might constitute adventure eating.  To aficionados of authentic Mexican food, those ingredients signal an invitation to deliciousness.  Among the “adventurous” ingredients are lengua (beef tongue), cabeza (head), buche (pork stomach),  tripas (intestines), longonisa (sausage) and birria (goat meat).  The menu also includes tacos crafted with more familiar ingredients: carnitas (cubed pork), al pastor (spit-roasted pork), chorizo (spiced pork sausage), carne asada (grilled beef) and shrimp.

The value-priced tacos are terrific, some of the very best in town.  Two corn tortillas are engorged with the ingredients of your choosing as as well as onions and cilantro if you want.   Then you can mosey on over to the salsa bar for pico de gallo, a guacamole-salsa, a tomatillo salsa or a fire-roasted tomato salsa, not that they’re needed.  It’s hard to say one taco is better than the next because they’re all so very, very good.  With each successive taco you eat, you’ll likely discover a new favorite.  For now…and probably because it was the last one sampled, my favorite is the al pastor.  Weather permitting, on weekends Tacos Mex will set up the spit grill outdoors.  It’s like a sweet Mexican smoke signal beckoning the hungry masses.

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Tacos: Carnitas, Al Pastor, Chorizo, Longonisa

The mariscos menu includes a number of Mexican seafood favorites including tostadas de ceviche–one made with camarones (shrimp) and one a mix (mixto) of seafood: shrimp, fish and squid.  A generous smear of mayo tops the tostada, both as a “binder” to hold the seafood ingredients and as a contrast to the briny seafood flavors. Unlike some ceviche, this one is light on the citrus flavor which is perfectly fine because you can squeeze on as many limes as you’d like.  The shrimp is whole, not chopped.  In addition to seafood, the tostada is topped with slices of ripe avocado and finely chopped tomatoes, cilanto and onion.

As if tacos and mariscos aren’t enough, the menu offers a wonderful array of caldos (soups): posole, caldo de siete mares (seafood stew), menudo and caldo de res, the Mexican comfort food favorite.  Caldo de res will warm you up, fill your belly and make you feel good all over when it’s made well.  Tacos Mex prepares a very good caldo de res.  Swimming in a large bowl of light beef broth are perfectly prepared vegetable favorites such as potatoes, carrots, zucchini, cabbage and corn-on-the-cob as well as very flavorful shank bones and their meat.  Garnish the caldo with onions and cilantro and you’ve got a soup as nurturing and comfortable as a Vietnamese pho.

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Tacos: Longonisa, Lengua, Brisket, Pollo

Tacos Mex Y Mariscos offers a number of aguas frescas (literally fresh waters) to wash down all the rich, delicious food you’ll enjoy.  The horchata is as sweet as milk left over from a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal and it doesn’t have the “powdery” aftertaste of some horchata.  Also available are a number of Mexican carbonated beverages, including Mexican Coke a Cola. 

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Caldo de Res

Tacos Mex Y Mariscos is located on my well-beaten-path to Mary & Tito’s Cafe.  Because Mary & Tito’s is nonpareil in its excellence, I drove by Tacos Mex with hardly ever giving it a second thought.  My mistake!  Tacos Mex is a destination restaurant in its own right, a taqueria good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as a Duke City restaurant nominated as one of America’s best new eateries for 2013.

Tacos Mex Y Mariscos
5201 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 344-1456
LATEST VISIT: 17 May 2013
1st VISIT: 23 February 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Horchata, Caldo de Res, Tostadas de Ceviche Mixto, Tacos: Al Pastor, Carnitas, Longoniza, Chorizo

Tacos Mex & Mariscos on Urbanspoon

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