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El Agave Tequileria: fine sipping and dining

If all you know are "shooters," you don't know tequila. Shooters are popular tequila drinks below the border, particularly in clubs, where alcoholic haze is magnified by the decibels of loud music from bands or sound systems. Sometimes, in swinging clubs, bar servers sneak up on unwitting patrons, often pretty young women, tilt their heads back, pour tequila into their mouths, and shake their heads with enough violence to cause whiplash, as friends and patrons watch and cheer. Actually, it is all in good fun and the person "shot" usually loves it. It is all part of the revelry, along with dancing and just having a great time.

But it really isn't the way to best enjoy tequila, a drink that is becoming more popular in the country as more Americans become aware of its sophisticated good taste. One of the best places to become educated about tequila and have the opportunity to sample its range of subtle flavors is at El Agave Tequileria, in Old Town. As the name implies, it specializes in tequila. When entering the restaurant, one doesn't see wallpaper or paintings on the walls and ceiling, but rather the glinty reflection of light off hundreds of bottles of all shapes and sizes of the liquor.

Just like cognac is named for the Cognac region of France, there is now a town called Tequila in the Mexican state of Jalisco, although the town came after the drink. The liquor is made the agave plant, which grows in the region, and the better tequilas are made from the "blue" plant variety. Most tequila is produced in only 4 states of Mexico.

The Aztecs fermented the agave and called the drink "pulque," but the Spanish conquistadors distilled the liquid, creating North America's first distilled liquor. Mass production began in 1600, more than 400 years ago.

Tequilas are labeled Blanco, Reposado or Anejo to differentiate between the lengths of time they are aged. Blanco has not been aged at all. Reposado means rested. This Tequila can be aged from three months to a year and will develop in complexity as it ages. Anejo has been aged at least one year. During aging this Tequila acquires distinct and subtle aromas particular to its maker as well as to the barrels in which it has been aged. Sometimes, older barrels are used, particularly ones that were involved with brandy and cognac, to give tequila a unique taste.

El Agave is a terrific place to learn about tequila. It really is a drink to sip slowly, to allow the aromas and tastes to flow over the palate. Situated at the edge of Old Town, it is away from the frenetic activity of the heart of the area. The comfortable setting lets one focus on the flavors. The restaurant is actually on the second story of a building, set above a liquor store, with a small parking lot. A long patio seemingly has been enclosed to offer more seating, and seating is also available on an exterior patio facing the green mountains of Mission Hills.

The interior of the restaurant has a sense of elegance. Lighting reflects off copper chargers, temporary place settings and crystalline bottles containing many varieties of each class of the liquor. And, the restaurant has tequila produced for its private label, which is also a favorite. One often sees large parties dining together, celebrating special events at this special restaurant.

Guests don't come for the view. There is none. They do come for the tequila and for the cuisine. The sign on top of the roof calls it "nouvelle Mexican cuisine." I feel it is more of a throwback to truly unique, traditional Hispanic recipes. If you think that Mexican cuisine is all about tacos and enchiladas, you're in for a very pleasant surprise.

Mexico has a delicious and fascinating gastronomical variety that resulted from the merging of two cultures -- the indigenous Aztec and the conquering Spanish. The conquistadors learned about the use of tortillas, tamales, string beans, cactus paddles, tomato, aromatic herbs, avocado, spices, fruits, moles, vegetable oils, mushrooms, peanuts, chili and the correct use of fats and incorporated these condiments into their diets to create something new and wonderful. The spirit of such recipes is found at El Agave.

The restaurant also features a choice of moles. Most American know guaca"mole," made of avocado and often served alone with chips or on a salad. "Mole poblano" is also well-known, made of dried chile peppers, ground nuts and, spices, Mexican chocolate, and a variety of other ingredients. These are sauces that add taste and sometimes "fire" to a dish. The menu at El Agave offers an opportunity to try different moles, including Mole Rojo, made from chile pasilla, ancho, guajillo, pepper and clover, and Mole Verde, made from tomatillo, chile de agua, chile serrano, epazote, hierba santa, chochoyotes (corn masa), both moles served over chicken or pork with white rice.

The menu is extensive, offering seafood, fowl and meats.

My appetizer, Sopecitos de Camarón, a thick and doughy blue-corn tortilla stuffed with cooked shrimp in a chipotle sauce and lettuce was as outstanding as the menu promised. The entrée, Pierna de Cerdo en Pistache, leg pork baked in a chile with ancho, celery, garlic, sesame seed and pistachio, was a substantial serving of meat covered with a tangy and absolutely delightful sauce.

El Agave Tequileria is an absolute gem that requires diners to look for it but the rewards are great. Good tequila is a sipping drink, to be savored and enjoyed in good company and with fine food. The cuisine is unusual and very enjoyable. Prices are moderate to high but well worth the pleasure.

El Agave Tequileria is located at 2304 San Diego Avenue, near to the Interstate 5 exit to Old Town. Call (619) 220-0692 for information and reservations.


Rottenberg is editor of Dining San Diego Magazine and member of the California Restaurant Writers Association. He is also the restaurant critic for www.sdgodowntown.com. Send comments to the editor@sddt.com. All letters are forwarded to the author and may be used as Letters to the Editor.

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