When you're approaching a Mexican cantina, you know what you're in for the second you open the door: a great big fiesta involving sombreros pinned to the wall, mariachi music blasting from the sound system, hitting your head on a piñata or some brightly colored flags, and oversized, salt-rimmed glasses at the bar.
Not so at Agave Uptown, a Oaxacan-inspired restaurant and bar that opened in Uptown Oakland last month. Situated in the Kapor Center for Social Impact, a group of nonprofits dedicated to making entrepreneurial skills accessible to all that's located at 22nd Street and Broadway, Uptown is the second restaurant to come from Octavio Diaz, a Oaxaca native and the chef-owner of Agave Healdsburg.
While Agave Uptown's menu is a close replica of Diaz's mezcal-and-mole-heavy flagship up north, the design and delivery shows a difference, thanks to the team at Arcsine, an Oakland architecture-and-interiors firm the Kapor Center — pronounced “KAY-poor” — contracted to trick out its ground-floor eatery. A semicircular wall of windows invites curious walk-ins, brightening up an open-floor dining space that might otherwise suffer from low ceilings and poor acoustics (though the place is quite noisy, not from music, but from customers).
The main entrance (located on 22nd Street, in spite of the address technically being on Franklin) funnels traffic straight to the blue-gray soapstone and tiger wood bar, where cocktails, tequila, and mezcal flow freely. Mimicking the leaves of the agave plant, the source from which mezcal is made, the back bar is decked out with flattened geometric shapes crafted from blue steel plates and backed by a wall of glass. Through them you catch a glimpse of a private dining room decorated with authentic coas — the tool used to harvest agave — that can be sectioned off and rented out for parties and business lunches. It was created especially for the Kapor family, who brought on Diaz as the Center's restaurateur after frequent visits to Agave Healdsburg.
The kitchen kicks out endless orders of chips and salsa, ceviche, enchiladas, tacos, and empanadas, as well as less common house specialties like the tlayuda (a Oaxacan pizza topped with black beans, cabbage, quesillo cheese, and avocado) and molotes (tiny fried triangles of masa stuffed with chorizo and potato and served in cabbage leaves along with queso fresco and black bean paste).
The menu — and the restaurant as a whole — is colorful, but not cluttered, with an array of items that range from botanas (small bites) and ensaladas to oysters and larger entrees. The specialty of the house, though, is Diaz's famous mole, made with more than 20 ingredients sourced directly from Oaxaca and simmered on the stove for five or six days. (He's working on a plan to sell it by the bottle.)
And what mole is to the kitchen, mezcal is to the bar. Personally sourced from families and local producers in Oaxaca, Agave offers more than 30 types of mezcal divided into nearly a dozen categories. If you know what you're after, you can order it straight up, but the newbie to mezcal (or to Agave's substantial selection) would be wise to opt for a flight. Served in traditional jicaras — small, carved-out gourds that are both lightweight and sturdy — mezcal is a smoky spirit that ought to be sipped rather than shot.
You can also get it shaken or stirred in one of Agave's original cocktails, including mezcal riffs on the classics. Try La Mula Mezcalera (a Moscow Mule), the Guelaguetza Sour (a Pisco Sour), or the Oaxacan Moderna, an Old Fashioned made with benesin reposado mezcal, vanilla honey, mole bitters, and Luxardo cherries, and served over a jumbo ice cube infused with shards of vanilla bean. But be forewarned, even the mango-infused Melocoton Ahumado with its tropical syrup, mango, and yuzu foam is far from fruity.
For the mezcal-averse, there are other bars to visit; there are also other beverage options, including local and Mexican craft beers (mainly from the Bay Area and Baja California), a modest selection of Sonoma County wines, and an array of booze-free aguas frescas and, of course, Jarritos sodas.
Deliberate detail reaches all the way to the restrooms, where tiny bright tiles form a mosaic that pays homage to the patterns in Oaxacan textiles. Mapped out on an Excel spreadsheet that the creators consider “a thing of beauty,” the final result is Instagram-worthy — and required no margin-formatting or mail merges.
Mezcal and mole. Oaxaca and Oakland. Find them all at Agave.