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In Chadds Ford, Kicking Mexican Food Up a Notch

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It’s a given: When you are seated at a Mexican restaurant, you will be greeted with bowls of tortilla chips and a dip. And so it is at Agave Mexican Cuisine in Chadds Ford. The dip is not, however, the red salsa you might expect. It is a smooth green tomatillo sauce that is bright with fresh cilantro, mildly spicy and very good.

Nor are the chips the salty, run-of-the-mill yellow corn crisps that snap upon scooping. Agave’s tortilla chips are thick and fried to a beautiful light brown, with a slight nuttiness that sets them apart.

If it’s true that there is one chance to make a good first impression, it is surprising that more restaurants don’t make the most of the opportunity. Agave does, and though a great start with something as humble as chips and dip—and a friendly greeting from the hostess—could have proved a bait-and-switch, the good impression only deepened as the meal went on.

First, a note: The new-ish Agave Mexican Cuisine in Chadds Ford is not affiliated with the popular Agave Mexican Restaurant in Lewes. There seems to be much confusion about this—though they are, in a sense, kindred spirits. Agave Mexican Cuisine in Chadds Ford is affiliated with the Zagat-rated Spasso Italian Grills in Media and Philly, also kindred spirits, though the cuisines differ. Like the other Agave, the Chadds Ford eatery spins traditional Mexican food—or the Mexican food we’ve been conditioned to expect—into something different. Like Spasso, it kicks things up a notch, offers a surprise or two, and executes consistently well.

Second: Agave is a BYOB. Stock your cooler or wine tote. If you are a margarita lover, BYO tequila. You can buy a pitcher of cold mix for $15.

Third: Bring your appetite. The prices may be a bit higher than those at home-style Mexican restaurants, but the portions are proportionally more generous. That’s not the case at some BYOs, which are compelled to charge high prices to compensate for the profits they would otherwise make from liquor sales. I may have blanched at the $14 tag attached to a bowl of guacamole, but be assured, there is more than enough to feed four hungry diners. I call that fair.

I also call it delicious. Guacamole is, to me, a touchstone food, an overall indicator of how good a restaurant is. As easy as it is to prepare, it seems somehow easier to flub. Even the small spectacle of a tableside prep, though fun, does nothing to mitigate too much of this or too little of that. Agave preps in the kitchen, and it does so well, balancing onion, tomato, lime, peppers and cilantro perfectly with the avocado. The guacamole is served in a molcajete the size of a small house.

 

A generous portion of guacamole is presented in a molcajete.//Photo by Javy Diaz

 

The list of other starters includes standards such as queso fundido, which can be ordered with a local twist—mushrooms instead of chorizo—and nacho plates. The house version gets Chihuahua cheese, black beans, pico de gallo, crema fresca, avocado, and chicken or chorizo. The Muriendo de Hambre version (“dying of hunger”) is a plate of those delicious homemade nachos piled high with Chihuahua cheese, black beans, pico de gallo, crema fresca, and a choice of grilled chicken or steak.

We were far more tempted by the seafood offerings: tuna tostadas and a special octopus ceviche. The tuna was served tartare style with chopped cilantro atop three silver-dollar tostadas—again, brown and nutty—which were a perfect textural foil to the silkiness of the fish. Each was topped with a slice of avocado and dabs of spicy remoulade on the side. The octopus was presented beautifully as thick slices tossed with onion, tomato and chunks of avocado in lime with cilantro, then served in a glass with nicely blistered tostadas. On such a night as the perfectly fair pre-summer evening of our visit, the food put us in mind of warm days on the coast.

Thick slices of octopus ceviche is tossed with onion, tomato and chunks of avocado in lime with cilantro.//Photo by Javy Diaz

At the U.S. 1-PA 100 intersection—famous as the home of Brandywine Prime on one corner, Hank’s Place on another—Agave sits in the heart of an area rich with great Mexican restaurants, some arguably more authentic. Look elsewhere for pozole and tacos of beef tongue. Agave pleases with its own specialties or with slight tweaks to standard fare. Clams sautéed in garlic and white wine, for example, get a handful of chopped cilantro. The Caesar salad is topped with shavings of cotija cheese instead of Romano. It is otherwise the Caesar you know and love. As a nod to its Italian cousins, Agave serves branzino sautéed with capers, olives, onions, and white wine in a light tomato sauce, but with the addition of jalapeños.

The menu does not offer a large selection of enchiladas, burritos and other foods you might expect. It does offer a couple of tempting quesadillas and a few items of “Street Food,” mainly tacos—pulled pork or shrimp, short rib braised in guajillo chili sauce, mahi mahi with cabbage slaw and avocado topped with chipotle aïoli.

I regret not trying the cauliflower and chick pea tacos. We were, quite simply, too hungry for anything but a full-sized entrée. Agave did not disappoint. The carne asada arrived as a generous 10-ounce rib eye grilled deliciously and served with strips of tender grilled cactus and oyster mushrooms in a red chili sauce with just spice enough to match the smoke from the grill. I could quibble over the nondescript rice pilaf (it accompanies most entrées) and wan crabmeat served with the pollo poblano, but the dish was a smash all the same. A butterflied chicken breast was sautéed with the crabmeat and local mushrooms in a subtle poblano pepper cream that was as delicious on the large chunks of sautéed squash as it was on the meat. Butterflying a chicken breast is risky—the meat is too lean to tolerate overcooking—but Agave did it right.

 

The carne asada is accompanied by strips of grilled cactus and oyster mushrooms.//Photo by Javy Diaz 

 

It is tempting to call everything about Agave Americanized. The dining room, rustic and contemporary, inhabits a space between Spanish Mission style and Chester County chic: drop ceiling tiles that resemble stamped copper, smoky wide-plank floors and white walls with just as many Mexican paintings and wood carvings as it takes to give the area some flavor. None of the staff in the front of the house appeared to be Latino. Nor are there runny refried beans or overly cheesy meals that characterize more pedestrian places.

And that’s all perfectly OK. In a market of Mexican restaurants that are diversifying in surprising ways, Agave offers something different.

And it offers a tres leche cake to die for.

Tres leche cake//Photo by Javy Diaz