Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Tequila Sunset at Tres Agaves

130 Townsend Street
San Francisco, CA 94107
(415)227-0500
Chef Joseph Manzare
Brunch on weekends
Lunch and Dinner Daily

Tres Agaves on Urbanspoon

Last tried: January 2006

Inside a large exposed brick loft space in the South of Market district with an open kitchen and an expansive tequila bar, Tres Agaves exudes casual chic in both its atmosphere and its food. Although I have never been to Jalisco, after tasting the food and sampling the tequila at Tres Agaves, I am thinking it might be worth a trip one of these days to see where such quality fare originated. In the meantime, Tres Agaves rocks with people enjoying its spicy food and hip tequila cocktails as the sun sets in the City. Tres Agaves also offers a condensed late night menu (interestingly, completely different from its regular dinner menu, which indicates they are not serving leftovers) which is available all week long until 1am and even later into the night on Friday and Saturday nights.

Upon being seated and as I perused the long list of margaritas, other tequila cocktails, and tequila flights, the complimentary chips and salsa arrived. While de rigeur at most Mexican restaurants, these chips were thicker and less salty than in other places and came with both green and red salsa. The green salsa was tart and spicy, and the red salsa was sweet and smoky.

As I was enjoying the chips with the different salsas and trying to decide what to drink, the server gave a brief yet quite informative summary of the different tequila selections-- the lighter and fruity varieties from the Highland region and the oaky, robust ones from the Lowland region of Jalisco. Among them, the blanco tequilas are clear and unaged, going straight from distillation to the bottle. The reposado tequilas are aged in oak barrels from a couple of months up to a year, and the anejos are aged for at least a year or longer. The Don Julio 1942 Anejo, a highland tequila, had a sherry nose and a richness of flavor that I would normally associate with scotch, and the smoky El Jimador Anejo made me crave a nice cigar. Flights (three 3/4 oz. pours) of blanco tequilas are available for $10, reposados for $12, anejos for $14, a "super premium" selection for $40, and a "super star" selection for $200. No salt, no shots. This is sippin' tequila.

I was getting the beginnings of a mild buzz from sampling the array of tequila glasses in front of me when the appetizers arrived. The aguachile de camarones, a ceviche-like dish with marinated raw shrimp and chunks of fresh cucumber, tomato, and avocado, was refreshing and satisfyingly crunchy with a pleasant tang from the serrano and habanero salsa. Although my personal recommendation is to taste the quality tequilas at Tres Agaves straight, without the interference of sweet mixers, I made an exception for the green cucumber fresca cocktail, which paired excellently with the aguachile and balanced out the vinegar in the dish.

The gorditas were also sensational-- the griddled masa were crispy outside, soft inside, and created the ideal sandwich casing for the soft and flavorful shredded beef and zippy avocado salsa. The chilpachole, described as a "hot" crabmeat broth with roasted tomato and chile, however, was not quite as well executed. The broth was neither hot in the spicy sense nor in the temperature sense, but rather just tomatoey and thick.

Tres Agaves is particularly adept with its meat dishes. The costillas de puerco (slow roasted pork riblets) with salsa verde was amazing. The riblets were so tender that they fell off the bone with just a nudge of my fork, and the green chile salsa added a nice zing to the already well-spiced meat. The juicy and soft carnitas, rubbed with Mexican oregano and chile, tasted like a Mexican version of prime rib, with ribbons of glistening, melty fat intertwined within the chunky meat pieces. The corn tortillas that accompany the carnitas are great eaten solo or as wraps for the carnitas. Add a scoop of the shredded cabbage, mango, and serrano chile salad-- one of four side dishes included with every entree-- and top with the green salsa served with the chips, and you get a tantalizing carnitas taco. As for the other side dishes, although the white beans stewed in tomatoes were a little bland and the cilantro rice was somewhat overboiled, the refried beans with chorizo were creamy and hearty, with terrific strong flavors from the beans and the spicy sausage. This side dish was tasty enough to be served alone.

The restaurant does have a few minor kinks to work out, such as timing and service, which is friendly and enthusiastic but a little unpolished. The appetizers, while worth waiting for, took some time to arrive, whereas the entrees arrived shortly on their heels. Yet even as I was manuevering around the numerous glasses, plates and bowls on the table, I was enjoying the food and drink so much that I was planning what to order on my next visit.

Tres Agaves has found a niche in Mexican cuisine that is upscale in flavor and presentation yet still reasonably priced, and they fill it well.

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