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Thursday, June 17, 2004 06:25 pm

Food, service set Los Agaves apart

Omar Hernandez, Marisela Cervantes, and Juan Carlos Cervantes
Nick Steinkamp

It's unfortunate that the décor and feel of Los Agaves don't rise above the offerings of the typical Mexican restaurant -- the food and service certainly do.

The interior of the restaurant, which opened in November in a strip shopping center across from White Oaks Mall, is standard-issue Mexican eatery. The bold gold-and-green walls are adorned with sombreros and striped blankets. Red, green, and white streamers hang from the ceiling, adding to the festive atmosphere. It's colorful, lively, and pleasant -- and oh-so-familiar. But Los Agaves still manages to stand out from its competitors.

First, the service is outstanding. When we dined there recently, we were brought a basket of chips and homemade spicy salsa within seconds of sitting down. The waitstaff was consistently attentive throughout our meal, and the food arrived quickly. (Be careful: When they tell you the plates are hot, they aren't kidding!) Patron Marilyn Neale, who says she dines at Los Agaves with her husband at least once a week, always orders the quesadilla roja; her husband prefers the beef burrito. "We like the friendliness, and we like the food," she says.

Los Agaves offers a variety of beverages, including margaritas, Mexican and domestic beers, soft drinks, and coffee. I chose a regular margarita, which was a bright lime green. The menu says the margaritas are made with a special recipe, but this one tasted more like a premixed variety than like one prepared with freshly squeezed juices. My husband ordered the restaurant's special blue margarita, which we liked better -- it's hard to beat a drink that's the color of the Caribbean. Frozen margaritas come in a variety of flavors, including coconut and raspberry.

Appetizers include nachos, quesadillas, guacamole, and cheese and bean dips. A multitude of items can be ordered on the side: rice, beans, tortillas, tamales, tacos, enchiladas, burritos, chalupas, taquitos, quesadillas, tostadas, tostaguac (flat tortillas topped with beef, lettuce, and guacamole). We started our meal with chips and the smooth, creamy guacamole, which is made daily, says Juan Carlos Cervantes, who manages the restaurant with his wife, Marisela. The Guadalajara native has been working in the food industry since moving to the United States at the age of 16.

The restaurant offers interesting and surprising dishes, including vegetarian options. The veggie fajitas are made with sliced mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, broccoli, and zucchini. The green chile ribs also sound intriguing: four pork ribs cooked with green chiles. Nico's special -- sliced chicken breast, mushrooms, peppers, and gravy served with corn tortillas, rice, and beans -- can be ordered spicy on request. The special on the night we dined at Los Agaves was La Pavuillada, a catfish fillet and shrimp served with red and yellow peppers, onions, tomatoes, and side salad.

Lunch specials, served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday, include smaller portions of items such as fajitas, chile with beef tips and beans, huevos con chorizo (scrambled eggs with Mexican sausage, rice, beans, and corn tortillas), burritos, and the taco salad, as well as several combination plates.

We tried the Agave burrito, a soft flour tortilla filled with large chunks of pork tenderloin. The pork was simmered in beer, making it extremely moist and tender. Topped with melted cheese and pico de gallo, this was a perfect example of what a burrito should taste like. The onions, tomatoes, and peppers that dressed the burrito gave the meat a nice spicy flavor.

The beans and rice that accompany the dishes are nothing special. But each entrée we tried rose to the occasion. The camarones al mojo de ajo consisted of a plate of medium-size shrimp marinated in garlic, served with guacamole salad, rice, beans, and tortillas. The shrimp was similar to the shrimp scampi found at seafood restaurants but without the oily, buttery coating. Nicely infused with the rich taste of garlic, the plump shrimp were flavorful without being coated in oil. They were a nice change of pace and delicious when tucked inside a tortilla with guacamole.

I sampled one of the many combination plates on the menu. Mine came with a burrito, enchilada, and chile relleno. The enchilada was covered in a rich, brown spicy mole sauce, and the burrito was filled with tender chicken slices and topped with a rich salsa. Both were good, but the chile relleno was even better. The melted cheese topping the dish was creamy and mild, providing a nice contrast to the spicy stuffed, fried pepper.

Desserts include banana ice cream, fried ice cream, flan, and sopapillas. I've yet to finish a Mexican meal with any room left for dessert, and my evening at Los Agaves was no exception.


Los Agaves is located at 2466 W. Wabash Ave.;
217-546-9308. Hours: 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Fri. and Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu.


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