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Agave Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar – Oaxacan Cooking Emerging in Healdsburg

Agave Mexican Restaurant took over the space near Safeway in Healdsburg previously occupied by Taqueria Santa Rosa. I’ve been there four times since shortly after it opened this summer and the service and food have gotten better with each visit. The friendly owner has stopped by my table to check on things each time. He is from Oaxaca and related to the owners of El Farolito in town, http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/737189. I believe they were helping him out at the beginning, and his mother and father are also involved.

My first visit on June 18, I wanted to taste-test the mole and tried it tamal and enchiladas as a two-item combo with rice and beans, $9.95. I also had an horchata, $2, that’s made in-house from rice, not powder.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

The enchiladas de pollo en mole turned out to be a little too sweet for me.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

More to my taste was the tamal de mole. Meaty with chicken and balance of the sauce, made by the owner’s mother, was better for me. When I pointed out the difference, the owner said that the mole negro is the same in both the enchilada and tamal, but the steaming does change the flavor a bit. The smooth and flavorful masa uses olive oil, not lard, and plus lots of homemade chicken broth in the mix to pump up the flavor. It's folded the traditional way and steamed in a banana leaf. While I prefer the taste of lard, the texture of the masa did not suffer with this lighter oil. Different, but equally good.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

With a good first trial, I asked what other Oaxacan specialties I should try next and asked him about memelitas, huitlacoche, and other colors of mole. He explained that he would love to make all those things but he needs to work with the customer base inherited from the taqueria who mostly order burritos. He said that he’d had sopes/memelas as a special but they did not get good feedback. Still, he said that he was trying to find a source for fresh huitlachoche in season and that he could make a flor de calabaza quesadilla for me the next visit.

I returned on August 7, but alas, after checking with the kitchen, the flor de calabaza purchased from Ortiz Brothers at the Healdsburg farmers market that morning was already sold out. However, he’d just taken delivery of some fresh oysters and encouraged me to try them.

Here’s the half dozen local oysters, grilled and topped with garlic and butter, $10.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

Barely firm, the oysters with the natural sweet and briny juices mingled with garlic butter and a squeeze of lime were as good as it gets for summertime bivalves.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

I also enjoyed a lovely fresa agua fresca, $2, made with organic strawberries from Sonoma County.

My next visit was August 21. The owner greeted me with a smile and the news that chapulines (dried grasshoppers, genus Sphenarium) was the special of the day. The one other time I’d tasted chapulines as a botana, I was glad to have tried them but felt no need to repeat the experience. I might have waffled for a couple beats, yet felt I had to order the chapulines to encourage the owner to keep adding authentic foods to his menu. Luckily for me I did, as these were much better than my earlier taste. Served as a soft taco, $2.50, and topped with a spicy salsa roja, plus some pico de gallo on the side, these were a smaller and crisper type. The owner said that they’re seasoned and roasted in house for a fresher crunch. I’m now a chapulines fan, if they can be as tasty and crunchy as these.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

I also got the last order of the Quesadilla de flor de calabasa (squash blossom), $7.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...
Priced as the vegetarian quesadilla listed on the menu, the filling included squash blossoms, sweet pepper strips, onions, and Oaxacan cheese. A dab of guacamole and sour cream on the side added more richness.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

Besides lucking out with the grasshoppers and squash blossoms, it turned out that Agave had finally received its liquor license the day before and could now open the
Tequila bar. I tried a House margarita made with Tres Agaves blanco, agave syrup and fresh squeezed lime juice, $7, to celebrate. This is a very good house pour.

My most recent visit was a cold night on October 29 when I was in serious need of some warming soup. The special soup of the day was camarones, but I wanted something simpler and asked if something else might be available. My waitress soon came back from the kitchen to tell me that if I could wait a few minutes the beef soup prepped for Saturdays and Sundays would soon be ready.

The Consomé de Res, $9, was simple and glorious. The oxtail and short rib were exactly on point and deeply beefy with just enough seasoning to highlight the natural, nearly unadorned taste of the meat. The owner explained to me that these meats are seasoned in advance, then cooked separately from the stock and combined later. The ingredients used to make the stock give up their soul to the soup and are discarded. The double-meating was evident in the depth of flavor which rivaled the best pho bo. He apologized that in rushing to serve me straight from the pot, the stock had not been chilled and fully skimmed. Not necessary, as the surface had only few specks of grease. The vegetables – potato, corn on the cob, carrots, green beans – were each cooked to the right doneness and full of their own flavor. With a squeeze of lime and the chopped onion and cilantro served on the side, this chased away the cold I’d felt coming on. Chilled in the fridge overnight, my leftover, highly concentrated consome gelled up solid.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/melaniew...

Other Oaxacan specialities offered include tlayudas, mole de Oaxaca plate, molotes, and tortas made with quesillo. The owner promised me more soups and home-style stews from his mother’s recipes once the winter came. Also he was looking for someone to make tortillas by hand on the weekend Now that we’ve celebrated the solstice, maybe it’s time to check in again.

Agave’s menu:
http://agavefreshmex.com/menu.html

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El Farolito
128 Plaza St, Healdsburg, CA 95448

Agave Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar
1063 Vine St, Healdsburg, CA 95448

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  1. The good: totally excellent entree (enchiladas)

    The bad: boring salsa, stale and greasy chips, watered down margaritas.

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    Agave Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar
    1063 Vine St, Healdsburg, CA 95448

    1 Reply
    1. re: ChowBaby

      Coincidentally, last night some friends in wine country asked me if I'd been to Agave yet. They were there two weeks ago and like you thought the food was very good and affordable. I asked if they'd had margaritas and they said that they were really strong. So, if your margarita is watery again, be sure to complain because I don't think that's the intent here.

      The salsa as different on each of my visits. So much so that I made a point of talking to the owner about it. One time it was spectacular, full of smoky notes and far more complex and spicy. The other times, not remarkable at all. The owner said that the staff take turns making the salsa so it will vary. I suggested to him that he codify the recipe for whoever made it that day and repeat!

    2. Reviving this thread as we went Monday night and had a delicious dinner. A small guacamole to start was a generous serving, came with greaseless chips. Next came Shrimp Fajitas which DW thoroughly enjoyed and I had the Molcajete which was a tasty combination of shrimp, beef, chicken etc in a delicious red sauce. Tasted every bit as good yesterday for lunch.

      A couple of Racer 5's were perfect with all the food. Service was very friendly and helpful. A nice relaxing meal.
      No doubt we have a new favorite place for Mexican food.

      Here is a picture of that awesome Molcajete

       
      2 Replies
      1. re: tom246

        Wow, I didn't know that Agave had molcajete on the menu.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Not on the online menu but sure is on the written menu :)

      2. Stopped in for an early dinner last night. The printed menu has much more variety than the online menu.
        Started with the guacamole and chips which hit the spot.

        My entree was Tasajo which was perfectly prepared and delicious. Beef was tender and came with grilled onions, mushrooms, chili pepper with a side of rice and beans.
        I guess you can compare to fajitas but tasajo was so much better.
        DW stuck to her favorite, camarones tequila which were also excellent. Service is always friendly and helpful.

        We dearly miss the pizza in NJ but we have found alternate comfort food :).

        6 Replies
        1. re: tom246

          When you just need a quick bite and can live without table service and alcohol, the family owns Casa del Mole and Rufina's Kitchen.
          http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/884193

          Happy to hear that you're Californians now!

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Melanie, the link to the LA Times article on tejocote inside that post produces an "Attack" alert for the page. A google search also comes with a warning.

            1. re: PolarBear

              No problem opening the page from my iPhone. Chrome browser is having a problem today.
              http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/8891...

                1. re: PolarBear

                  Yes, I saw that. Chrome and its owner, Google, are rife with false malware warnings today. It has flagged most of the LATimes site and the Chow site, as well as others, as infected with malware. Hopefully this will be cleared up soon.

                  1. re: PolarBear

                    Google/Chrome has turned off the false alarm now.

          2. What I always long for when I remember the food in Oaxaca is chiles rellenos that are not battered or deep fried. They simply stuff a pasilla pepper with cheese and other stuff, heat it, and serve with tomato sauce. So much better than the deep fried version. Does Agave do that?

            Other suggestions where one can get this sort of chile rellenos?