Agave Blues

It’s been years since I worked in a restaurant, but I still have nightmares about waiting tables. They usually involve the same scenario: I’m in the middle of an unfamiliar dining room in the middle of a busy dinner shift, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing. I don’t know what’s on the menu or where my station is supposed to be or where the kitchen is. Occasionally when I have this dream, I also look down and realize that I’m naked. That’s usually when I wake up in a cold sweat.

Two visits to Parkville’s three-month-old Blue Agave reminded me of this nightmare. The Mexican food was pretty good, but the service was so chaotic that I wondered whether I was really there or just a character in a server’s bad dream. There were nightmarish moments for me, too, though, like the evening that our dinners — five of them — came out not all at once but one at a time, with three or four minutes between plates. A petty irritation, maybe, until you add all the other little irritations. The total equals a migraine all the top-shelf tequila in the world couldn’t cure.

Despite the restaurant’s intoxicating name, the busy summer months could be a headache for restaurant owners Diana Leon and her brother-in-law, Alejandro Leon, unless they get their act together. Blue agave is a variety of the spiny plant used to make tequila; Diana thought it sounded vaguely upscale and distinctly different from Pancho’s, the previous tenant, which didn’t aspire to the same level of cuisine that the Leons plan to serve. They want a more sophisticated bar crowd, too. “When we opened, we wanted to have a bottle of every kind of tequila that’s made, Diana says. “We don’t yet.”

But the Blue Agave does have a lot going for it: an appealing location in beautiful downtown Parkville, a clever venue (the dining rooms are two railroad cars perched near some busy train tracks) and a reasonably priced menu of what Diana calls “Mexican home-style comfort food — not Tex-Mex.” Though she never lived in the Tequila region, Diana did spend 15 years in Mexico, where she learned how to make a lot of those home-style dishes.

But the first night I dined at Blue Agave, with friends Bob and Lou Jane, our perky young Anglo server didn’t even know what kinds of tequila were on the shelves when Lou Jane ordered a margarita. After looking baffled for a moment, she finally had to drag the bartender into the dining room. “I don’t really drink tequila,” she admitted to us.

Naturally she didn’t eat meat, either, so she wasn’t much help when Bob couldn’t decide whether he wanted shredded beef, chicken or ground-beef empanadas. If Miss “I’m a Vegetarian” had eaten meat, she might have warned us to stay clear of the shredded beef, which was so stringy and dry that it made the empanadas nearly impossible to eat. “It grows in your mouth,” Lou Jane mumbled after her first bite. (The baked dough was tasty, though.)

I was even less impressed with the soupy queso and the warm, tomato-based salsa served with the chips. The servers suggest hotter varieties — a smoky chipolte number and a green tomatillo sauce — which Diana Leon insists are superior. But for some reason, we didn’t request them, and I decided that the best appetizer was the least complicated, a fresh-tasting guacamole that the Leons make a couple of times a day.

As we nibbled on chips and waited for our dinner, we admired the way the former dining car had been transformed for modern tastes, with tile floors, frosted-glass windows and glass-topped tables with white linen napkins. The smaller caboose, on the other side of the bar, is usually reserved for private parties. Both cars shake and rattle when real locomotives go thundering by.

That night, the Blue Agave’s mole poblano was my kind of comfort food, a plump chicken breast draped in a mahogany-colored sauce just faintly flavored with chocolate. It tasted homemade, but Diana later confessed that she brings it back from Mexico “in big buckets,” then “doctors it up.” That visual is less enticing than the idea of Blue Agave’s staffers brewing the sauce right there in the kitchen, but Diana says all the other entrées are made from scratch. That includes the fat chile rellenos Lou Jane ordered, which were stuffed with cheese, fried and slathered with tomato sauce. Bob, meanwhile, had the Pepe Special, a burrito generously stuffed with pork and (at Bob’s request) ground beef. It wasn’t dripping with melted cheese, which is one of Diana’s pet peeves with other local Mexican restaurants. “In Mexico,” she says, “cheese is used as a condiment, not a sauce.”

When it was time for dessert, our server insisted that the tres leches cake was also made in the restaurant, even though it had come from a local bakery. The garishly frosted cake turned out to be a pale, dry imitation of richer versions, such as the excellent one served at Café Venezuela.

For the next visit, I brought along two friends and a couple of kids: Bob, Ellen and her two preteens, Alex and Kathy. Bob laughed when our server pestered us about ordering dinner before Ellen and the kids arrived. “We’ll wait,” he told her, “so we can all eat together.” But this was the night that the dinners were served in shifts, so we didn’t quite eat together anyway.

The waitress that night, a stunningly lovely young woman from Venezuela, wasn’t a bad server. She was smart and personable and tried her best to smooth over some of this restaurant’s loco eccentricities, including a menu (soon to be changed, I understand) printed in type so tiny that I practically needed a microscope to read it.

I could forgive a modest case of eye strain. I could even stifle my annoyance at the servers’ failure to bring side plates so we could serve our appetizers. But things got downright comical when, after I asked for those plates, we got four of them for five people. When I asked for one more, I got a saucer. Whose nightmare was this, anyway?

Ellen ordered a taco-and-enchilada combination and pronounced both components “standard-issue Mexican.” I was more adventurous and chose the carne a la tampiquena; I enjoyed the flat, thin piece of sirloin beef prepared Tampico-style, rubbed in lime, spices and pepper, then grilled and served with strips of roasted chiles. And Bob was thrilled with his sizzling platter of chicken-and-beef fajitas buried under a pile of sautéed onion and green peppers. It’s a classic Tex-Mex dish, despite Diana Leon’s insistence that fajitas are Mexican in origin. (Food historian John Mariani says they were first introduced at Ninfa’s in Houston in 1973. “Well, they’re popular in Mexico now, too,” Diana says.)

We ended that meal on a homey Mexican note with a plate of crunchy, puffy bunuelitos dusted with cinnamon sugar and drizzled with caramel sauce, which the kids loved and the adults ignored. Bob and Ellen split a wedge of cheesecake, also imported from a bakery. We were, by this point, nearly the only table in the restaurant, and we were finally getting some attentive service.

Blue Agave has plenty of potential, but I’d suggest hiring a couple of servers who can juggle three or four tables at once. It’s not that difficult.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews