Agaves Lifts Mexican Comfort Food to New Heights

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Photos by Brian Addison. Full gallery below.

It’s a phenomenon in the States that is echoed by the Executive Chef of Agaves, Abel Hernandez, “una percepción americana”: the perception that Mexican food is comfort food, Mexican food is largely Sonoran and Guadalajaran and that Mexican food is not high end.

“Tacos and burritos,” Hernandez said. “That is what Americans—especially the Southwest—expect from Mexico. But like any country, its cuisine is vast and differing: Yucatecan, Oaxacan, Sinaloan… And it doesn’t have to lack flair.”

Other Los Angeles area places have popped up to prove the obsession with border Mexican cuisine among gringos needs to be alleviated: Corazon y Miel in Bell brings classical technique to Mexican and Central American dishes while Coni’Seafood in Inglewood brings Sinaloa-style pescado zarandeado to the heart of all grub lovers alike.

Long Beach, though offering some of the best Sonoran and Baja street food through staples like Los Compadres and Taqueria la Mexicana, has not quite found the voice of the rest of Mexico.

Oaxaca Mio at 10th St and Orange Ave. was a short-lived glimpse into Oaxacan food in the LBC. Its variety of moles easily rivaled some of the best in L.A. (yes, even Tia Mole in East Los) while also offering Oaxacan classics and rarities like chapulines (marinated minced grasshoppers—don’t squeal: they were utterly delicious), molotes (Oaxacan empanadas), tlayudas (think Mexican pizza for lack of a more eloquent description)…

Hernandez is trying to change all these misperceptions with his Downtown Long Beach restaurant Agaves. Though largely misperceived as a club—it admittedly has many party nights which cater to the Pine Ave. weekend crowd—its true star is the hidden gem of its cuisine.

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The Ensalada de Nopalitos.

Agaves’s Ensalada de Nopalitos is inarguably the best in Long Beach: tender, raw cactus soaked in a housemade oregano vinaigrette and avocado oil with a hint of ginger, a few drops of chili oil (it doesn’t add heat but flavor), and cotija cheese. The dish is a warm welcome to start with for anyone willing to explore Agaves’s vast menu.

Other appetizers stick to Hernandez’s clean palate: his ceviche is direct and to the point with tiger shrimp marinated in a house mixture of citrus juices and topped with jicama, mango, avocado and a hint of chili oil and cilantro. And his Coliflores a la Cazuela—Hernandez’s take on fried cauliflower “casserole”—is a Mexico City staple deconstructed: the veggie is topped with pepitas, a chipotle mayo, and fine shreds of epazote, a perfumey herb native to southern Mexico.

These antotijos prep for the main events that are the especialidades de la casa.

Hernandez’s breadth of reach is impressive: taking us to Oaxaca, one can easily find exquisite chicken mole poblano with Agaves’ss decadently rich dish that harbors the perfect blend of heat and sweet. The Talla Salmon, marinated in achiote—common in Latin and Jamaican food—is plated on corn esquite, all underneath a beautiful red pepper coulis sauce.

But two of Hernandez’s biggest stand-outs are his takes on common dishes for the Southern Californian: carnitas and the chile relleno.

The Marisco Chile Relleno.

Using a single chunk of slow-cooked pork, Hernandez then goes through a process that is specific to the Queretaro region of Mexico: a housemade caramel is lathered onto the pork and put into searing hot cast iron to render and brown the fat. Squeeze a lime over it, pair it with the equally awesome sweet’n’spicy habañero salsa and I assure you, you’ll be in gastro-heaven.

The chile relleno opts for the ocean—a style I have never had and was hesitant about. I’ve had the common Sonoran chile relleno—good ol’ cheese-stuffed battered pasilla pepper—and I’ve had Oaxacan—on the sweeter side with seasoned beef, raisins, and olives… But shrimp and scallops in a crème garlic sauce and topped with a light layer of jack? One’s eyebrows can easily be raised.

However, the dish was a rich (but not overwhelming) seafood concoction that—particularly when scooped with the layer of chipotle crème and crema Mexicana—is a simply delicious, complex dish that harkens to French style with Mexican flavor.

The fruits of Hernandez’s labor will ultimately be left to those training underneath him as the Mexico City-based chef, who also runs the universally acclaimed Cocono in Queretaro, will head up to Portland to take on a similar residency to help refine Mexican cuisine in the rainy metropolis.

His menu, however, will remain. Thank the culinary gods.

Agaves is located at 200 Pine Avenue.

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