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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
LATEST VISIT: 2 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Enchiladas de Pato, Filete Al Tequila, Entremes Surtido, Salsa and Chips