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Tasty Mexican specialties and serious margaritas in an impressive SOMA warehouse

Wednesday, Feb 8 2006
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We lucked out both times we dined at the new Tres Agaves. We found Hollywood parking within steps of the front door, were given one of the few comfy upholstered booths when we arrived -- whether with a reservation (at dinner) or without (for lunch) -- had some excellent food and drink (along with, it must be said, a couple of clunkers), and even received some unexpected gifts. And I am so haunted by the thought of a dish I didn't try that I'm sure I'll be back before the ink is dry on this piece, despite the fact that I'm not a member of the cult of tequila.

Which is not to say that I don't appreciate a first-rate margarita, especially if it's made with respect and fresh juices, as is the house version at Tres Agaves, prepared with Arette Blanco, described as a lowland ("oaky, herbaceous, more robust") tequila, as opposed to a highland ("spicy, fruity, lighter body") variety. (You can get flights of sipping tequilas, as well as mixed drinks.) I've never seen tequilas divided into lowland and highland before, and Peter agrees. He also agrees that the most beautiful feature in the stylishly designed space -- which boasts 20-foot ceilings and such eye-catching touches as a beyond-oversize glass-lantern light fixture -- is the rock wall made of carefully stacked round stones caged in wire that separates the entrance from the dining room, itself then wittily echoed by a mesh-and-glass case stocked with rare bottles of tequila above our booth.

Peter's sipping the house margarita, whose style is also explained by the cocktail menu heading "Rocks, No Salt." I'm not nearly as entranced by my choice, the Scramble, a margaritalike concoction colored and faintly flavored with crème de mûre (blackberry liqueur). The big, fresh tortilla chips, served with two house-made salsas -- a red one based on roasted tomatoes and a green one made with chipotle chilies -- are very salty and encourage drinking. We begin with two of the more intriguing and unusual starters (from a list of 10 botanas y antojitos, including the more expected "classic" guacamole and a salad of jicama, oranges, and cabbage): tlacoyos de requeson, masa cakes filled with sheep's milk ricotta, and gorditas de res, masa cakes with shredded beef. The tlacoyos' masa wrapping is crisp and thin and crackles when you bite into it, but its filling is bland, pasty, and singularly undairylike; most of the dish's flavor comes from the bright-tasting tomato-chili salsa it sits in. The gorditas are adorable -- little, fat, square, firm buns, slit open and stuffed with soft shreds of long-cooked meat, and resting in a lake of green chili and avocado salsa. "They look like sliders," Peter says, and they go down easy.

The platillos fuertes (main plates) that follow are even better. I cede the choice to Peter tonight (because everything that looks good to him looks good to me, too), and we get chile rellenos and carnitas, two items that show up at Mexican places high and low everywhere. But what we get is several notches above. The rellenos, mercifully unbattered and not deep-fried, are made of two big poblano chilies stuffed with a vegetable mixture featuring chunks of zucchini, more chilies, onions, white corn kernels, crumbles of queso fresco, and the huitlacoche that caught Peter's eye; he loves the earthy corn fungus so much that he used to ask the produce guys at Berkeley Bowl to save the end-of-the-season corn ears "afflicted" with it for him, instead of scraping it off. Tres Agaves' version is a sophisticated take on the dish. The carnitas arrive as two baseball-size lumps of meat accompanied by a heap of freshly chopped, uncooked salsa (tomatoes, onions, cilantro), some halved radishes and lime chunks, and a container of little corn tortillas. "I like carnitas with charred bits," Peter says, referring to the kind in which the roast pork is chopped and then fried on a grill or in a skillet, and so do I, but I'm seduced by the melting-soft texture of this slow-roasted version, rubbed with pungent Mexican oregano and chili powder. I can't stop eating it. Nor can Peter. (We also can't stop eating the simple but refreshing cabbage salad with julienned mango, one of four sides, served family style, that come with all the main courses, the others being cilantro rice and two bean dishes, refried pintos and white beans stewed with tomatoes.) The luscious meat makes me sad that I hadn't ordered another item I was drawn to, the carne en su jugo, described as Jaliscan-style slow-cooked beef in a rich broth with bacon, cilantro, onions, and lime.

Jalisco, the restaurant's Web site tells us, produces 98 percent of Mexico's tequila, and is the region that inspires Tres Agaves' kitchen. Its cuisine looks soupy, judging by the starters of chilpachole (hot crabmeat broth) and a scallop coctel served in a warm, spicy tomato broth, as well as mesquite-grilled escolar in citrus broth. I'd rather have tried another savory dish than our desserts, a firm slab of goat's milk flan that's both a little grainy and insufficiently caramel-y and a wedge of tres leches cake layered with almost tasteless strawberries.

When I tell a friend about my otherwise delightful Sunday supper, she tells me she enjoyed everything about her own lunch there -- which featured spicy soft pork and chicken tacos -- "except the piece of saran wrap in my friend's soup." How did the staff respond, I wondered? "The very gracious and mortified server comped us dessert."

When I bring my friend Joyce and her baby, Violet, back for lunch, it's grayish and sprinkling outside. We're tucked into a booth, and when Joyce turns down the idea of starting with an ensalade de Alex Cesar Cardini (in homage to the Tijuana-based inventor of the Caesar salad), I suggest sharing a pork tamale (since tamales are not on the dinner menu), followed by carne asada and an unusual pozole made with shrimp.

We've barely dug into our split tamale when our second courses arrive, to our dismay and our server's. But we soldier on; Joyce adores the sweet, soft masa enfolding the shredded pork in the tamale, as well as the mild chipotle salsa that drenches the wood-grilled skirt steak. I like the deeply flavorful, well-spiced broth of the pozole, but both the large shrimp and the hominy seem a little too resilient; in the more common version, the pork or chicken grows softer as it steeps. And in Tres Agaves' variation "all the classic garnishes" include a heap of dried Mexican oregano, but we could have used more avocado (one wedge floated in the soup) and radishes. Violet happily gorges on rice mixed with beans and guacamole.

For dessert we choose bread pudding over chocolate cake, and when our server arrives she says, "Things taste even sweeter when they're free." We're so surprised that we ask her why we're getting this unexpected gift; she explains that it's because of the earlier timing mix-up, which we had forgotten as we relaxed over our food while the lunch rush emptied out and we lingered in the pleasant room. The cognac-drenched bread pudding (caporitada) served with caramel sauce and vanilla bean ice cream is indeed the best dessert I've had here. And we're further surprised when another server asks us to wait when we show signs of leaving -- then returns with a kid-size Tres Agaves T-shirt for Violet. I think of asking if they'll whip me up an off-the-lunch-menu order of carne en su jugo to go, but I don't press my luck. We've been fortunate enough already.

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Meredith Brody

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