Man, Myth and Shots
"I consider myself a tequila connoisseur," says Agave Azul founder Zotico Reyes. "It's the spirit of Mexico...the myth of it, the taste itself."
Reyes, a longtime Dallas-Fort Worth restaurant pro (La Margarita, Mi Cocina, Cozymel's), has both Greek and Mexican heritage, which might explain his attraction to both the "spirit" and the "myth" of tequila. Simple human lust explains the taste jones.
Agave azul, a succulent that has been cultivated for some 9,000 years, according to archaeologists, is the source plant of the best tequila. It isn't clear where the name came from or how the drink evolved, though some archaeological references mention the presence of agave pollen in ancient human dung. Agave is steeped in mystery, and when enigma meets inebriant, poetry ensues. Colombian poet Alvaro Mutis puts it thusly:
Tequila has no history; there are no anecdotes confirming its birth.
This is how it's been since the beginning of time, for tequila is a gift from the gods
And they don't tend to offer fables when bestowing favors.
That is the job of mortals, the children of panic and tradition.
It's also the job of mortals to compose myths and urban legends, many of which are stapled to tequila, namely:
1. There's a worm in tequila. There is no worm in traditional Mexican tequilas. Evidence suggests the worm was a ploy unleashed by mescal producers in the 1940s to grab market share, a brilliant promotional stroke that probably wouldn't work with headcheese or cream puffs.
2. Tequila is nothing more than Mexican moonshine. The spirit is manufactured under tight regulations controlled by the Mexican government and the Tequila Regulatory Council.
3. Tequila charms the brain like a good psychedelic drug. This myth arose from the assumption in some circles that mescal meant mescaline, which highlights the dearth of spelling bees among the drug-addled.
With all of the mythology, poetry and human dung referencing tequila, it's not surprising that a restaurant is devoted to it.
But while tequila is a poet muse, it often is not the best culinary ingredient. Case in point: camarones al agave, six shrimp slopping in a tequila cream sauce. Yet it isn't the tequila part that is the problem. The sauce is delicately savory and silky smooth with a ghostly layer of sweetness that looms on the finish--though there wasn't nearly enough of it. The problem was the shrimp. The shabby things were limp and listless and cooked clean of that fecund sea splash that puts a glint in your eye.
This is in sharp contrast to the coctel de camaron, a shrimp cocktail that had, hooked on the rim of the bowl, six of the burliest, most succulent, ripest shrimp seen outside of a Red Lobster commercial. The stubs hover just above a deep red slurry blended from ketchup, Tabasco and V8 hopped up on orange and lime juices and pebbled with pico de gallo, small avocado wedges and tightly coiled salad shrimp.
Yet the really good stuff happens even before appetizers or the tequila shot samplers encroach. They arrive in a basket upholstered with a napkin: housemade chips, thin, yellow, snappy, greaseless. They're fried and shoved into a metal bin in the dining room with a large lid that's lifted so the servers can plumb them by the scoop. The chips are tethered to a boldly delicious salsa that reaches deep with smoke, tang and a barely conspicuous capsicum punch offset with streaks of sweetness. It's a scorched sauce, not roasted but charred--tomatoes, peppers, onions--until every flavor is extracted and concentrated. Spread it thin enough on a chip, and charred vegetable skin confetti emerges as black speckles through the cloudy fluids.
Agave is simple and utilitarian with concrete floors and floor-to-ceiling windows framing a sprawling row of warehouse loading docks. Simple wooden chairs stained in primary colors ring beat-up wooden tables. The bar, the space where the tequila stash (more than 85 varieties) is stored, is sealed off from the dining room. This is where the smoking happens, which makes it a chamber of vice, which for tequila might be an insult, a compliment or both.
All told, this restaurant is a fascinating work of off-beat minimalism with so much faint weirdness on tap that you have to sit a long while sipping tequila to let it all seep in. The servers, dressed in white smocks, move with the assurance and mannerisms of polished dentistry professionals. Their smiles could easily be interpreted as spasms of rehearsed authority if their sincerity didn't smack the impression down.
Unlike the smiles, the tamales--pork ones, spread over a corn husk--are ugly things. The husk, tied off at one end that drops into a clump of coarsely chopped pico de gallo, adds the necessary frill. So do the smears of chile con queso, chile con carne, sour cream and ranchero sauce, which add zest to the moist and supple rolls.
Entrées appear simple on the plate yet are the results of tremendous effort. They taste like it, too. Favorito de mama is two splayed quail marinated in Worcestershire, Season-All, lime and soy ("no MSG though"). They look like they've just been shot out of a tanning booth, what with all of their bronze and yellow tones, with only the crunchy black blotches and stripes to betray they've actually been leaning against seething grill bars instead of UV lamps. Still, the birds are juicy and tender with rich flavors, nicely finished off with a surge of grill bitterness.
Sea bass gets a mud treatment of achiote paste followed by a dabbing of charred habanera salsa before it's plated. The flesh is sweet, a little musky and flakes readily, reeking in complex flavors.
But the real effort goes into the hog. Pork in the plato Luis is marinated for eight hours in Mexi-Cuban hybrid soak and slow-roasted for an additional 10 hours in 250-degree heat. It arrives shredded in ropy, dirty yellow knots, and, boy, are they tasty and juicy and not a little addictive.
Finish this off with still more shades of bronze: sopapillas, the delicately puffed and greaseless deep-fried pastries that behave like beach pillows, dusted as they are with sugar-cinnamon crystals. These tender pastries come with cups of whipped cream and agave nectar, a clear fluid that is thinner than honey and not nearly as cloying.
This is why Agave is significant: It has character that could easily inspire hymns and mariachi operas. There's ample room here for more than poems, myths and dung forensics.
1837 W. Frankford Road, Carrollton, 972-242-8314. Open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday & Saturday. $$
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Dallas dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.