After years of being largely ignored by American diners, it appears that Oaxacan cuisine — with its moles, mezcal, fried grasshoppers, and variety of interesting soups and stews — is finally having a moment. Here in the Bay Area, many of the highest-profile upscale Mexican restaurants to open in the past few years have cited Oaxacan inspirations. And it's now easier than it used to be to find hole-in-wall spot that sells banana leaf-wrapped Oaxacan-style tamales or a credible mole negro.
The latest contender is Agave Uptown, a bright, festive spot located on the first floor of the nonprofit Kapor Center for Social Impact. Chef-owner Octavio Diaz has family roots in the Oaxacan village of Santo Gertrudis and runs another Oaxacan eatery — also called Agave — in Healdsburg. Members of his family operate a handful of other Mexican restaurants, and even an Asian-fusion spot, in Sonoma County, leading one alt-weekly writer to dub the Diaz clan "Healdsburg's royal family." Apparently, Mitch and Freada Kapor were great fans of the Agave in Healdsburg and recruited Diaz to open a second location in their building.
Given the restaurant's Oaxacan roots, it should come as no surprise that the mole is its biggest point of pride — specifically, the mole negro, aka "the king of moles." At Agave, the mole negro is made with twenty different ingredients, none of which are disclosed on the menu. (Good luck getting any Oaxacan cook to give away his family's secret mole recipe.) But when we spoke on the phone, Diaz did give a general outline of the dish's main components, which include apples, raisins, plantains, ginger, Oaxacan chocolate, seven kinds of dried chilies, and a vegetable stock.
The resulting mole sauce had a thick, velvety sheen, and was less sweet than other moles negros I've had, with subtle layers of fruitiness and spice that built on the tongue.
I ordered the mole with chicken, and I loved how the skin on the rotisserie-grilled chicken — large, succulent pieces served on the bone — kept its crispness even after sitting in the pool of sauce. And the accompanying tortillas were some of the best I've had at an upscale Mexican restaurant: thin and charred at the edges, with little pockets of air that puffed up from being heated on the griddle.
But some of the restaurant's other Oaxacan specialties that are lesser known, at least to the average Bay Area diner, were even more impressive. The torpedo-shaped fried masa cakes known as molotes made for great snacking. These were filled with just a dab of chorizo and topped with an abundance of Cotija cheese, sliced cabbage, and black beans cooked down to a luxurious, savory paste.
My favorite dish was probably the tlayuda, a pizza-shaped, crisp tortilla base that's topped with more of that black bean paste, shreds of string-cheese-like fresh quesillo cheese, nopales (cactus pads), fresh tomato and avocado, and a little jug of salsa that you can pour on top as you eat. The version with house-made chorizo is particularly delicious, but what sets Agave's version apart is the base of the tlayuda itself, which is supremely crunchy with a hint of smokiness. Don't be afraid to break it apart with your hands and get a little messy.
Meanwhile, Agave's molcajete, a kind of mixed grill served in a traditional Oaxacan stone mortar (the molcajete), is a thing to behold: fatty, well-charred pieces of chicken, plump shrimp, and chewy strips of steak all served in a tangy, spicy tomato-based salsa that's prepared in the molcajete itself before it's cooked. Served with rice and beans and more of those excellent tortillas, the dish is the very definition of abundance.
At the end of the day, Agave makes no apologies for being a higher-end Mexican restaurant — a place where, on any given Friday or Saturday night, you'll see plenty of well-dressed diners sipping mezcal cocktails. But it's also less expensive, and a bit less precious, than the other Oaxacan-influenced East Bay restaurants that serve as its most obvious comparison points: Comal in Berkeley and Calavera just down the street. The mole plate and the molcajete, for instance, are hearty enough for two diners of moderate appetite to share — especially since the staff is generous about replenishing your tortilla supply.
If I were sticking to a tight budget, I'd split an order of endless chips and salsa (the house-made tortilla chips and the accompanying pair of smooth-textured salsas are both excellent) and follow that up with an order of tacos for myself. These aren't quite street tacos and aren't priced that way either, at $9 for an order of two. But, as far as upscale tacos go, these were admirably unfussy and workmanlike, and were piled with twice as much meat as you'd expect to get at a place like this. A decadent tangle of pork carnitas dripped with meat juices. And the zesty, well-charred cecina — thinly sliced, adobo-marinated pork loin — is the taco to get if al pastor is your standard order.
Wash it all down with a $3 horchata — perhaps the richest, creamiest version I've encountered in Oakland — and you'll be out the door with your wallet mostly intact.
Agave serves traditional Oaxacan dishes almost exclusively, but Diaz isn't averse to mixing it up on occasion: One night, there was a Spanish-style seafood paella special that I was almost talked into ordering. The regular menu includes a Caesar salad, which, though the dish is believed to have been invented in Tijuana, few diners would think of as being particularly Mexican. Crispy tortilla strips give Agave's version a kind of kitschy, fusion-y quality, in the manner of the fried wonton strips that garnish a Chinese chicken salad. But Diaz sneaks a little bit of Oaxaca into the salad after all: He grinds up chapulines, aka dried grasshoppers, and puts them in the dressing as a stand-in for anchovies — to provide that extra kick of saltiness and pungency.
The chapulines are listed on the menu with no translation, and part of me enjoys the thought of some squeamish diner finding out that he has been eating bugs mid-bite, or perhaps upon reading this review. (Surprise!)
Diaz has big plans — to add weekend brunch service and grab-and-go takeout items, and to expand the menu so that sometime in the near future you will, for instance, be able to order lobster with your mole. The chef's family is still based in Sonoma County, but he has rented an apartment in Oakland within walking distance of the restaurant and said he basically spends all his time there now.
"I want to make this a home run restaurant," Diaz said. "Right now it's like stage two of the rocket."