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
BEST BET: Camarones A La Crema, Horchata, Chipotle Salsa and Chips, Mole Ranchero

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

Rafiki Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)


Rafiki Cafe, Albuquerque’s first and only Kenyan cafe

Let us break bread and celebrate our diversity.”
~Desmond Tutu

Peruvian cuisine…been there, done that!  Moroccan meals…that’s so yesterday.  Persian food…it’s had its day.  Pan Asian dining…erstwhile eating.  Never mind Italian regional cuisine and Spanish tapas.  Once fresh and nouveau, they’re now practically prehistoric.  Who would have thought ten years ago that the Duke City would become so cosmopolitan, so open to multicultural culinary elements from all over the world?  Who would have guessed that cuisine once considered exotic and alien would become just another welcome part of the culinary climate?

In contemporary times fashioned by an interconnected world, a community of intrepid diners in Albuquerque has become very receptive and accepting of new foods. We embrace diversity, craving adventurous eating and won’t hesitate to try anything new. In fact, we sometimes prefer to try something new than to return to something we’ve already experienced. We rarely order the same thing twice. Leave the aversion to change and to trying new things to the “chain gangs,” those diners who find comfort in the mundanity of chain restaurants.


The interior of Rafiki Cafe

One of the exotic cuisines which has recently gained a foothold in the Duke City culinary scene is African cuisine though that term is very generalized and wholly inaccurate. As the planet’s second largest continent, African is home to hundreds of diverse cultural and ethnic groups. That diversity extends across localized culinary traditions, available ingredients, preparation styles and cooking techniques. It’s a diversity influenced for many by the ongoing struggle for sustenance.

The introduction to African food for many New Mexicans was courtesy of the amazing Jambo Cafe, one of Santa Fe’s very best restaurants of any genre. Jambo is the perennial winner of Santa Fe’s Souper Bowl competition and one of those rare restaurants in which culinary epiphanies (think all 10,000 of your taste buds erupting in choruses of Alleluia) occur with every visit. The genesis of Jambo’s award-winning cuisine is Lamu, a small Equatorial island off the coast of Kenya.


Beef Sambusas

The Duke City’s first African restaurant was Talking Drums, an exciting eatery showcasing the cuisine of West Africa. Talking Drums opened in February, 2012 to significant critical acclaim. Fifteen months later, the Rafiki Café opened its doors. Rafiki, a Swahili word which means “friend” specializes in the cuisine of Kenya, a sovereign nation in East Africa straddling the Equator and bordering the Indian Ocean on its southeast. As with many ancient culinary cultures, Kenyan cooking draws upon diverse ethnic traditions merged with seasonings and techniques of other countries, especially India.

Knowing this, you might not do a double-take when you see chapatti and sambusa on Rafiki’s menu and you’ll certainly discern the spices and aromatics of India when you taste the curry. Indian influences have their roots in colonial times when more than 32,000 indentured laborers were brought in from India to construct railroads. When the railroad was completed, many of the laborers chose to settle in the area and brought their families over. The melding of two ancient culinary cultures is a delicious one.


From top: Ugali, Rice, Cabbage

Ensconced in the timeworn Morningside Shopping Center on a section of Lomas in which restaurants of any type are few and far in between, Rafiki Café could pass from the outside for an Italian café and, in fact, its predecessor in the shopping center was La Dolce Vita Bakery. Interior ambience, however, cannot be mistaken for anything but Africa in its exotic splendor. Colorful tapestries adorn the walls and decorative scarves double as curtains. The flag of Kenya, sporting a traditional Masasai shield and two spears hangs proudly on the servers’ station.

In keeping with the translation of its name, the motto posted on Rafiki’s Facebook page is “a stranger is a friend you are yet to meet.” There are no strangers at Rafiki. From the moment you step through the doors, you are treated warmly, like a welcome guest. Don’t hesitate to ask any questions about the menu or the restaurant. The family who owns and operates Rafiki is very proud of their native land’s cuisine. Gladys, the owner and chef, wants very much for her guests to enjoy their visit and will check up on you faithfully to make sure of that.


Chicken Curry

Even before you set foot inside Rafiki, the intoxicating aromas will ensnare you. Peruse the menu and unless you’re already well-acquainted with Kenyan cuisine, you still won’t know the genesis of those aromas. Let the staff be your guide if you want, but for a truly adventurous dining experience, just order randomly from the menu. Everything we tried was wonderful. We knew it would be from the first bite of our sambusas. Sambusas are more than a case of “you say samosa, I say sambusa.” Sambusas are Ethiopian samosas, thinner than their Indian counterpart. Sambusas are fried savory pastry dough wrapped around a filling, be it vegetarian or ground beef. The ground beef filling, seasoned with lively Kenyan spices, is terrific. To keep peace in the family, request two orders…or ten. You’ll be hooked.

In addition to assorted salads of the day, the menu offers several vegetarian entrees. Main entrees are accompanied by very complementary sides that include ugali, a very common Kenyan food staple. Ugali is made from corn or maize flour and boiling water heated until formed into a dense block of cornmeal paste. By itself, the ugali seems coarse and heavy, but it’s not necessarily intended to be consumed on its own. Dip it into one of Rafiki’s stews like a sopping quality bread and it’s very enjoyable.


Gee’s Special Karanga Beef Stew

Another side served with a main dish is cabbage, a vitamin-rich vegetable and staple in Kenya. The cabbage is finely chopped (though not as finely as coleslaw) and prepared with tomatoes and onions, all fried together until crispy. It’s a delightfully simple dish with more flavor than you might imagine. Rice, another Kenyan staple is also served with main dishes. It’s a rather plain rice, not that there’s anything wrong with that. One side you should always order is chapatti, the Indian flatbread made with a flour dough and fashioned into a coil before being rolled into a flat, circular shape. It is then fried on an oily skillet which renders the chapatti crisp on the edges, but moist and doughy on the inside. Rafiki’s chapatti is as good as any you’ll find in Albuquerque’s Indian restaurants.

The fusion of Indian and Kenyan cooking is perhaps no more evident than in chicken curry, an entrée so wondrously fragrant that may remind you of walking into an excellent Indian restaurant. Unlike some Indian curries which tend to be rather creamy and thick, this one is more “brothy,” like a soup. Served in a “right-sized” bowl (meaning it isn’t the swimming pool you get at some Vietnamese restaurants), the soup is redolent with the captivating aroma of curry melding with complementary, exotic Kenyan spices. Rafiki is very generous with chicken, both in the amount and in the size of each piece. This curry dish ranks up there with some of the very best Thai and Indian curries in Albuquerque. It’s a winner!


Chapati and Cabbage

For comfort food, Kenyan cuisine has got to rank right up there with Southern cooking. One of the best exemplars of Kenyan comfort food is its Karanga beef stew, a well-seasoned, but not spicy, soup constructed with garlic, spices, onions and herbs. It’s easy to imagine yourself luxuriating in a steamy bowl of Karanga beef stew on a blustery day, but it’s delicious in any season. The beef is tender and delicious with the influence of Kenyan spices and herbs permeating deeply. Perhaps even more than the chicken curry, this stew is a perfect vehicle for the ugali.

Kenyan desserts may not be especially well known, but that’s only because they’re not ubiquitous as is chocolate, for example. One dessert which would be a hit with any diner sporting a sweet tooth is the Wali, a white rice cooked with grated coconut meat to create a sweet-savory twist to plain rice. Sprinkled with cinnamon, this dessert will remind you of a combination of Thai sticky rice and New Mexican sweet rice. It’s the best of both worlds, actually, a delicious rice encircled with fresh sliced fruit.


Ice cream with fruit and Wali (coconut rice with fruit)

Rafiki provides another wonderful option for adventurous diners who recognize there is deliciousness in every cuisine on the world culinary stage. Kenyan cuisine is diverse, delicious, comforting and nourishing and Rafiki prepares it very well.

Rafiki Cafe
4300 Lomas, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 June 2013
COST: $$
BEST BET: Beef Sambusa, Chicken Curry, Karanga Beef Stew, Chapati, Cabbage, Rice, Ugali, Wali with fruit

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