Agave Cantina: Agave Autentica

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It may be trivial to some, but the fact that Mexican cuisine was added by UNESCO to its list of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage” last November made my breakfast-deprived wait as I rode to Agave Mexican Cantina at Bonifacio High Street beyond worthwhile.

Walking along 9th avenue, Agave Mexican Cantina already stands out from the side with its protruding trellises. It stands out even more when you look at its blue cushions and honey-toned interiors against the white walls of neighboring establishments. Rustic elements such as dark iron hardware, wood, and wicker-back chairs evoke a country-style feel. Tiled flooring and inlaid ceramic tiles on the tabletops complete the modernized Andean design scheme. It was only 2pm, but I spotted my photographer Allan already at work shooting a variety of mojitos at the bar. As early as 11am when Agave Mexican Cantina opens, it already looks like a lively bar scene as customers may already order alcoholic drinks.

The free Wi-Fi zone sign gave me the go signal to take out my laptop and have a seat, but not before exchanging pleasantries with Operations Manager Mat Tee and Operations Consultant Chris Maier. My own experience with Mexican food – as a kid seeing only one Mexican restaurant in a TV Commercial while vacationing in the States and not seeing that same restaurant’s first store open in the Philippines until just a few years ago – is quite far from Chris’s own experience, whose home country borders Mexico.

“Mexican food is popular across all of the United States from coast to coast,” says the North Carolina native. “It’s one of (if not) the most quickly growing restaurant cuisines in the country. So whenever I’m back in the US and throughout my life, I’ve always been able to enjoy Mexican food.”

The Agave concept started with Chris traveling all over the world, including Mexico where he was able to savor its culture and cuisine. “Visiting ancient sites such as Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza were truly inspiring. These were civilizations and people of enormous complexity and character and visiting them gave me a glimpse of the depth of history and culture of Mexico. Food-wise I was most struck by the diversity of food in Mexico. Different regions of Mexico really have different flavor profiles and characteristics. We try to offer at least a sampling of those different regions here at Agave.”

In choosing where to set up a Mexican restaurant, Chris traveled to Asia and eventually chose the Philippines to be Agave’s home. “I’ve always loved Southeast Asia and the Philippines, in particular. The kindness and spirit of the people have made the Philippines a very welcoming place for me. The Philippines also embraces international concepts, especially those that are popular in the United States. And, of course, the fact that almost everyone speaks English here was a big plus.”

Besides the cheery, high-energy atmosphere, the Agave concept was also developed from the fact that truly authentic Mexican cuisine and beverages weren’t previously offered in Manila. “In the Philippines, there are very few Mexican restaurants. Of these, they tend to be either cheaply produced fast food or expensive Tex-Mex American imports.”

Chris continues, “I had already been traveling to the Philippines on and off for several years before we opened Agave. Over those years I was able to develop contacts and make friends who helped me a lot in the early days of conceptualizing the business. Our food consultants (renowned chefs Robby Goco who developed the menus for Tequila Joe’s and Cyma, and Raymond Palmez) were recommended to me by a fellow restaurant owner here,” he narrates. “Mat Tee simply applied to our original job posting seeking a restaurant manager. Throughout our three years together, he’s developed his knowledge and skills to become our Operations Manager and oversee all aspects of the operation.”

Agave’s first location in Eastwood opened on August 22nd in 2007. The previous tenant’s lease had ended and the space was available, so Chris decided to take a shot. “We put together a proposal, did a food tasting and Eastwood loved it. We then grew from there.”

The Fort branch opened December 17, 2009. “We had always wanted to open a location in The Fort. The problem was finding the right fit for our concept. It’s important to us to have a certain size, certain amount of foot traffic, outside seating and an ability to stay open late at night. We looked at several prospects and our current location fit all those needs wonderfully. When the space was offered to us, we quickly accepted.”

Their Tomas Morato branch just opened on September 22 of last year. “After closing our SM North branch, we were eager to reopen in a more suitable area nearby,” Chris says. “Tomas Morato fit the bill well. We were fortunate to find a space that was previously a restaurant, so that allowed us to quickly convert the space to our needs and reopen quickly.”

The Eastwood location was previously a restaurant as well. Their Fort location, however, was previously Anta, an Australian shoe company, yet the transformation from shoe store to restaurant was seamless. Their Fort location also differs from the other two branches in not accepting reservations on weekends as opposed to the other two which accept reservations daily.

After Allan was done shooting the Fresh Fruit Mojitos (P180), these drinks were the first off the Agave menu to be sampled by me. Agave boasts of being the only Mexican bar in Manila, and so their beverages are something to look forward to. “We have some of the best mojitos in town,” brags Chris. “Our fresh fruit mojitos are all made with real strawberry, mango or pineapple and fresh mint leaves. The use of fresh ingredients makes a tremendous difference in taste and really sets us apart from other bars and restaurants. We also offer a Buy 2, Take 1 promo on all our mojitos available from Sunday to Thursday.” Making an Agave mojito is labor intensive, using pestles to muddle sugar and mint. The result is a refreshing treat with the right amount of rum-kick. The Strawberry Mojito had a very pleasant berry taste that lingered. But even the fruitless Classic Mojito’s lime wedges were refreshingly rich in flavor.

The Nacho Grande (P365) couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve read from a blogger or two that this heap of meaty heaven was as tall as the Agave Mojitos. Check! It is wider than it is tall, and could very well be my last dish if I would attempt to finish it all by myself. Share it with others and you wouldn’t have to fight over chips on the outer layers, each and every chip has been smothered with Mexican cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo (a fresh, uncooked condiment made from chopped tomatoes and onion), guacamole, jalapenos, refried beans, and your choice of taco beef or grilled Jalapeno chicken. Each bite is unique and bursting with flavor.

The combination alone of the meaty chicken and the sweet honey vinaigrette dressing was what I loved most about the Agave Taco Salad (Solo P255, Grande P355) which also includes crisp greens topped with pico de gallo, black beans, corn. Mexican cheese, olives, sour cream and you may choose to substitute the grilled jalapeno chicken with taco beef. Served in a crispy tortilla bowl.

As with the mojitos, the margaritas use real fruits and fresh ingredients. “Most other restaurants and bars here offer margaritas that leave a lot to be desired,” explains Chris. “We believe we serve the best margaritas in town because we offer larger servings and all our margaritas are available with a wide selection of tequilas to suit the taste and budget of any serious margarita drinker.” Blended to perfection are nine Margaritas to choose from. Prices range from P175-495 per glass and P495-1395 per pitcher and each may be upgraded with premium Jose Cuervo Tequilla for P50 per glass or P150 per pitcher. Bottomless margaritas are available all day every day. A choice of P295 for bottomless House margaritas or P395 for their flavored margarita of the day.

Kids have the best promo though: they eat free on weekends! And you can receive a free kids meal from the kids menu with purchase of each regular menu item at P150 or more.

A fraction of the way through the Plato Ultimo (Amigo, which serves three to four people, at P1265; Familia, which serves five to six, at P1695; and, I was stuffed!) Perfect for families or large groups, this feast combines aperitivos (appetizers), side dishes, especialidades (specialties), and parrillada (grills). It features Beef Taquitos, Chicken Quesadilla, crab and shrimp rellenos (with the pepper stems showing a small variety of bell pepper is roasted and stuffed with a mixture of crab, shrimp and cheese before deep frying), Yucatan Steak skewers (one of their more contemporary dishes using US imported steak), Calamari Fritos with garlic dip, Filete de Pescado and their very tender Agave Baby Back Ribs (one of their regional specialties) already covered in barbecue sauce and served with extra barbecue sauce. Served with both lime-cilantro and Mexican red rice, corn chips, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream and a choice of salsa all begging to be dipped.

“Most of our dishes are not too spicy on their own,” remarks Chris, as most people tend to think that Mexican food is spicy. “That’s why we offer three different flavors of salsa to let our guests decide how much spice they want to add to their food.” Salsas range from the mild Salsa Fresca to the spicy Roasted Tomato Salsa. For the most daring, their spiciest dish is the Camaron al Diabla, a mix of tender shrimp with bell peppers and onions sautéed in spicy Diabla sauce.

As Allan had to leave for a wedding and with no one to help me, I had to stop and take the platter home (except for all three skewers of the Yucatan Steak Skewers which vanished due to the fact that it was my favorite) where I continued my food review and where my brother remarked that the ribs were really tender. Yet so much of Agave’s menu still needs exploring, including popular classic.

Mexican dishes like the fajitas and burritos among many other faves. And if you manage to have room for dessert, there’s the Agave Fried Ice Cream served in a crispy tortilla bowl and the Boca Negra, a rich flourless cake with a molten chocolate center.

Catching my attention on the menu were pictures of nacho chips in different colors. “For special occasions we do still use color chips,” explains Chris. “For instance for Halloween, we offered orange and black chips. For Valentines day, we offer red chips. There’s almost no difference in flavor between the various colors though.” With the large servings of food, soft drinks, iced tea, and lemonade, don’t be surprised if your glass is never empty, as servers, attractive as they are, make sure guests’ bottomless drinks get refilled before they ask for it.

When the sun goes down, the energy level goes up as Mexican music gives way to a mix of popular music for an energetic, festive atmosphere. “We’ve previously offered fire dancing, salsa dancing (with lessons), DJ’s and acoustic bands”, says Chris. “We currently feature bands and DJ’s in our Eastwood and Tomas Morato outlets on Friday and Saturday nights.”

Part of their next menu update for February includes a treat familiar to Pinoys: a lechon inspired crispy pork dish. “Since Agave Mexican Cantina is an original concept and not an established franchise from another country,” explains Chris, “we’ve had great freedom in being able to present the food in a way that we feel will be most accepted here in the Philippines. I think we’ve been very successful in striking a good balance of flavors that are appealing to the tastes of Filipinos and foreigners alike.”

Agave did a catering event for the Mexican embassy on their bicentennial independence day and what better critiques for Mexican cuisine than Mexican nationals who had only positive words to say. “They commented that our food was authentic,” says Chris. “They were excited that the food was freshly cooked even though it was an off-site catering event. Of the items we served, their favorite was our Yucatan Chicken Skewers. One of the Mexican chefs attending the event commented that we had the best Mexican food she had tasted in the Philippines.”

Finally Chris shares his thoughts on Mexican cuisine’s addition to UNESCO’s lists of the world’s “intangible cultural heritage.” He says, “I think it’s a perfect fit. UNESCO recognizes history and culture throughout the world and history and culture are two areas that Mexico particularly excels at. The popularity and influence of Mexican cuisine throughout the world is undeniable and it’s wonderful to see Mexican flavors getting the recognition they deserve.

And with Agave serving the most authentic Mexican cuisine in the Philippines, intangible treasures turn tangible with every bite and sip.

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