If you are looking for a Mexican restaurant in Buffalo serving deeply favored al pastor tacos that transport you for a moment to that dusty Mexico City mercado, you’re going to have to keep looking. If you crave a hot plate of gringo Mexican, where tacos mean ground beef by default, spice means black pepper and white Velveeta-like queso flows like lava, you’re in luck at El Agave. ¶ Every town should have a reliable source for guacamole, queso and jumbo Kool-Aid-based margaritas, dispensed at diner speeds. Buffalo has quite a posse of those places right now, and El Agave fits right in. ¶ We had a reservation, but El Agave staff could find no record of it. The building, which has been at least two other Mexican restaurants before, has been duded up with orange and earthtone accents and a tile-backed bar.
We waited at the bar, dipping warm tortilla chips into mild, smooth, blender salsa and ordered a pitcher of house margaritas. I miss Tang, and there was enough alcohol for me to warm to the idea of eight tangy goblets of beverage for the price of two craft cocktails. After 15 minutes, we got a table, with a view of the bustling kitchen and stacked garbage cans.
The sense of familiarity continued through the menu scan. El Agave’s is nearly identical to those of its Buffalo cousins, Agave on Elmwood Avenue, and Don Tequila on Allen Street. Plus most of the other Mexican places in town, to be sure. Burritos, tacos, combination platters, chicken breast or steak covered in cheese or sauce, fajitas, quesadillas and taco salads.
Guacamole ($4) and chorizo queso dip ($5.99) and swiftly refilled baskets of tortilla chips made for a pleasant appetizer round. The teacup-sized helping of avocado mash was smallish, but chunky and fresh, with tomato, onion and lime. The chorizo dip came in a Fiestaware soup bowl, lots of mildly flavored pork sausage adding red oil to a pool of white cheese sauce. (In a classy move, the restaurant uses a variety of Fiestaware dishes, which add a summery cast to the table.) I kept the rest of the queso dip to spoon over entrees.
The entrees arrived before the table was cleared, but we helped the server shuffle the plates. What landed were platters big enough for Thanksgiving turkeys, each with expanses of refried beans and rice. The beans were cooked smooth and pale in flavor, the rice, bolstered with pieces of potato, was adequate, if bland.
A guest ordered Steak Ranchero ($14.95), described as a 12-ounce ribeye smothered in ranchero sauce. That was a tomato purée with some chile influence, and it provided welcome flavor to a steak that was cooked to medium well, and chewy. Not expecting much from a $14.95 steak, the guest had asked the server for medium rare three times when he ordered. The server repeated back “OK, medium well” each time. “I don’t think I’m getting medium rare,” the guest said after the server left, and he was right.
Carnitas Fiesta ($14.99) was a portion of braised pork shoulder that had been sizzled on a griddle with onions, potatoes and carrots. It was served with warm flour tacos and a salad of lettuce, green bell pepper, onion, chopped tomato, green olives and cotija-like cheese. Some of the pork was chewier than I wanted, but it was a flavorful, humble assemblage I would order again.
Another guest got the Chiles Verde ($12.25), more pork chunks, these drenched in a thick, vibrantly sour chile and tomatillo sauce. She asked the server for spicy and got it, a bracing lick of heat that was welcome. The saucy pork, stuffed into more warm flour tortillas, were my favorite bites of the night.
Cat opted for Flautas Mexicanas ($11.99), beef rolled in corn tortillas and deep-fried into crunchy tubes. These were good versions, bigger than usual since they were made from two small tortillas lined up for a longer tube, and carrying plenty of seasoned ground beef filling. Adorned with accompanying guacamole and salad, they were a satisfying dish.
Desserts included crispy fried flour tortillas sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, termed sopapillas ($2.50), flan inked up with obtrusive chocolate syrup ($3.95), and chewy churros ($3.95). Fried ice cream ($3.95), a scoop of ice cream wrapped in a flour tortilla before hitting the deep-fryer, was not a disaster, the fried jacket offering some contrast to the melting interior. It was supposed to arrive with a choice of sauces, but it showed up drizzled in artificial strawberry syrup, which didn’t help me like it more.
El Agave does not aim to be a place that makes its own mole and pats out its own corn dough discs, like Valle of Mexico, and its food should not be judged on that standard. It’s also more of a safe bet. What it will do is swiftly serve you a solid gringo-Mex dinner, at a price that is more than fair.
El Agave - 7
Cheektowaga restaurant delivers platters of the Mexican favorites WNY expects.
WHERE: 3870 Union Road, Cheektowaga (235-5669, elagavebuffalo.com)
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; noon to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $2.99-$9.99; combo platters and quesadillas, $8.99-$14.99; entrees, $9.99-$16.50.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes.