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

About Gil Garduno

Since 2008, the tagline on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog has invited you to “Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico’s Sesquipedalian Sybarite.” To date, nearly 1 million visitors have trusted (or at least visited) my recommendations on nearly 1,100 restaurant reviews. Please take a few minutes to tell me what you think. Whether you agree or disagree with me, I'd love to hear about it.

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3 Comments on “El Agave – Rio Rancho, New Mexico”

  1. Gil thank you for letting us know about this place! My husband and I ate at El Agave the day after your review hit my inbox and we really enjoyed ourselves.

    We found the restaurant spotless, the owner very friendly and the food excellent. My hubby had the pollo ala crema and I enjoyed the #8 veggie quesadilla.

    Thank you again. I think we’ve found a new regular spot for Mexican food.

  2. RE Southern Mexican: ’92-’93 a place called Las Palmas had taken over a chain burger building. Having not thought to take a year’s stash of frozen Green to the nearby Green Hills neighborhood of Nashville, we hoped we might find something there that might be “New Mexican”. Be that as it may, my naivete was shocked at what this place, plainly signed as Mexican, passed off as Chimichangas….Too Funny on me…3 Taquitos! Alas, they drizzled a creamy white, sweet sauce (which I’ve never had since) that made you addicted to these “Chimis”. Great to see they’ve replaced the building and have expanded with 3 other locations!
    – BTW, speaking of Rio Rancho, have you/anyone run across the bunch of everyday Folk who used to gather to Jam Bluegrass at the old RubnWood?

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