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If you're one of those people who's always on the lookout for the next big thing, and you think the next big thing might be tequila bars, you might feel a pang about Tres Agaves, the brick cathedral of tortillas, margaritas, and fun that opened about two and a half years ago in the ever-more-crowded environs of AT&T Park. Tequila is, at its best, a New World riposte to the single-malt scotches and fancy brandies of the Old World: a carefully made and indigenous essence worthy of thoughtful appreciation. Its source plant is the agave, a succulent that is often supposed to be a kind of cactus but is really a member (along with garlic and onions) of the lily family.
Tres Agaves does have a tequila tasting lounge, and maybe tequila geeks really can get some pondering done in there but maybe not. Tres Agaves isn't about cozy spaces or nuanced discussions of a pedigreed drink; it's a huge party full of sports whoops, big plates of likable food, and plenty of semiblitzed people. As parties go, it's not bad at all. True, prices are on the high side; some of the dishes are ordinary; and most of the tequila goes into margaritas, which, for all their many innovations, are basically fruit drinks to get plastered with. But if, like me, you have a vestigial fondness for Chevy's, Tres Agaves will seem pleasantly familiar.
The sense of déjà vu makes itself felt early, once you're through the front door and past the host's station, which is screened from the rest of the immense dining room by a half-wall that reminded me of an oversized ant farm, with stones instead of grains of sand (and, presumably, very large ants). The restaurant opens out around you like another country: a rolling plain of tables bounded by a line of booths, another dining area behind that, and, to the left, another province of tables. Far in the distance: a wall of exposed brick rises two stories high.
Now that the airlines have decided to start charging passengers for water, we must be extra grateful for those freebies that remain, such as chips and salsa in Mexican restaurants. Tres Agaves' offering is especially good here: fresh, delicate, still-warm chips (as good as Chevy's) along with two kinds of salsa, tomatillo and chipotle. The latter was deliciously smoky and bristling with chili heat but perhaps too salty. When we vacuumed up the first bowl of chips, another was swiftly brought, no questions asked.
Much of the food is exactly what you would expect to find in this kind of setting guacamole ($8), for instance, served in a pestle-like bowl and notable not only for its price but for a freshness that goes a long way toward justifying it. The guac was a wonderful bright green (avocado flesh begins to turn a gray-brown on exposure to air, so color is an important index of freshness) and carried a definite chili kick. Queso fundido ($9.50) a shallow bowl of melted white cheese suitable for scooping into warm corn tortillas or up with chips was dotted with chunks of pork rather than chorizo, and while I love chorizo (in both its Mexican and Spanish guises), it can be overbearing. The pork here was better-behaved.
At $19, a plate of chiles rellenos seems a little pricey, but at least you get two peppers (poblanos) big, fresh, and a vivid green stuffed with corn kernels, mushrooms, zucchini slivers, and melted white cheese. Like Newfoundland dogs, the poblanos look formidable but are quite mild-mannered (i.e., no discernable chili heat). They're also charred and peeled, not batter-fried, which makes them less caloric and greasy-looking.
A few of the dishes were news to me. One, costillas ($9.75), consisted of pork knuckles braised in an ancho chile broth, and the result was something like a spicy osso buco. (The meat disappeared considerably faster than the broth, which we mopped up with a trayful of warm corn tortillas.)
Another, carne en su jugo ($17.50), turned out to be a kind of beef and bean stew traceable to the Mexican state of Jalisco (which is, not coincidentally, the heart of tequila country). The meat was obviously an obstinate cut that was going to require some serious tenderizing; it had been carved into ribbons, then simmered with red beans in a broth of lime juice, cilantro, and onions, almost like a cooked beef ceviche. The final product was puckeringly flavorful and nearly too salty I almost never say such a thing but was redeemed, in the end, by the acidity of the citrus.
A common experience in Mexican restaurants (at least for me) is to have done so much front-loading on chips, salsa, and the sundry delights known as antojitos at the beginning of the meal that, approaching the end, the mere thought of dessert becomes unbearable. Particularly if the dessert is flan, which it often is. Mexican flans aren't bad, but I've never had one to compare with a good crème caramel or panna cotta. A simple solution to this problem, if it is a problem, is to offer something else, and Tres Agaves does, several times over.
Nonetheless, we didn't quite warm to a chocolate-cinnamon cake ($6), despite its reasonable price and its attractive disk shape. The cake appeared with suspicious swiftness after we'd ordered it, leading us to suppose it had been sitting around for who knew how long, just dying to be summoned like an anxious junior-high-schooler at a dance. And it was dry from undue refrigeration? My kingdom for a flan! *
Dinner: Mon.Wed., 510 p.m.; Thurs.Fri., 511 p.m.; Sat., 311 p.m.; Sun., 310 p.m.
Lunch: Mon.Fri., 11:30 a.m.3 p.m.
Brunch: Sat.Sun., 10 a.m.3 p.m.
130 Townsend, SF