Nothing like a shot before-and after-dinner
Taking friends and family to Old Town when they visit San Diego for the first time conjures a range of conflicted emotions. It can be a guilty-fun obligation as a tourist destination, but it comes with a series of embarrassed disclaimers. "Look!" you find yourself saying, "It's the most overpriced, least authentic Mexican paraphernalia in a 100-mile radius!"
The dining options leave you with the same problems-especially now that my beloved Casa de Bandini is no longer within Old Town limits. Should you find yourself in the region around dinnertime with guests to entertain, however, there's one restaurant left that won't serve you soupy pinto beans in a mini fried-tortilla shell cup. Don't be deceived by its unassuming location above a liquor store-El Agave Tequileria is definitely a class act.
El Agave has intrigued me since my under-21 days, when it would have been an extremely frustrating dining experience. It's not that the food isn't good; it is. It's just that the tequila is truly the center of the meal.
Upon entering the large but cozily attic-like restaurant, you're confronted with towering wall after wall of glass cabinets, each packed with tequila bottles in so many shapes, sizes and colors that you start to speak in hushed tones, as though you're in a museum. And you really are-except you get to drink the art.
The tequila menu, which our server initially neglected to bring, is an overwhelming catalogue of more than 850 "boutique and artisan" tequilas, all of which have beautiful names that make you feel like an idiot when you try to say them. They range in price from $5 (for various types of Jose Cuervo) to $150. I ordered the Reformador Reposado because I liked its name and price-less than $10-and my friend went with El Charro Anejo, based on the same criteria. Each arrived in a tall, bulbous, vial-shaped glass, balanced delicately on a wooden brace, and accompanied by a mini shot glass of spicy tomato juice rimmed with salt. Limes are for peasants.
For entremeses (starters), we began with the Tlacoyos Cuitlacoche, rounded pieces of perfectly soft blue corn masa (maize dough) stuffed with black beans, cuitlacoche (sweet corn fungus, much tastier than it sounds), onions, fresh salsa verde and cheese. You get two as an appetizer; I could have eaten five and called it a meal. Diners of weaker constitution can opt for a range of quesadillas and taquitos with ingredients like squash blossoms and pickled cactus as well as the more traditional chicken and queso fresco combos. No one will be displeased.
Mole is El Agave's specialty, and with a menu that claims "mole is for the Mexican cuisine what baroque art is for architecture," it's pretty difficult to order your entrée from a different section. I went with the most traditional, dark sauce, the Mole Poblano Don Julio. It arrived in gigantic proportions, a large, tender chicken breast smothered with sesame seeds in a sauce that was simultaneously sweet, rich and spicy-the way mole should be. This one was actually a little on the sweet side for my taste, almost like dessert food. I could actually taste the chocolate, cinnamon and cloves winning the battle over the garlic, tomatillo and pepper family.
My dining partner, who didn't feel quite so obligated to try the baroque art of cuisine, went with the Pollo Ahogado, a lean chicken breast with a combination of delicately blended Oaxacan chile sauces. I actually wound up liking it better than the mole. Each dish was accompanied by rice "agave style," which apparently means "in an upside-down-cup shape, with carrots and potatoes in it." A pile of fresh warm corn tortillas was perfect for mopping up extra sauce from the plate.
My only real complaint was that both dishes were pretty lacking in the sides and vegetable departments. I could have used a little more than the bite-sized zucchini-stuffed-with-corn garnish. Next time, I'm going with one of the shrimp dishes that promise to incorporate fruit.
The dessert menu, which changes pretty frequently, usually has some kind of flan and a mousse or crème brulée. The chocolate crème brulée was decent, and fans of flan definitely won't be unhappy. But, honestly, the place isn't cheap, and if it's a choice between dessert and more tequila-a terrible choice to have to make anywhere-ask the annoyed server for that tequila menu back. With 850 options, it's pretty hard to end your meal on a bad note.
El Agave Tequileria is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.