Editor's Note: Chicago's one-time best tequila bar closed on December 21st, 2008 but is still used as a private party space. Fortunately, there's still Salud in Wicker Park.
A man once told me that there are some brands of tequila that rival the best Scotches in the world, in taste and sophistication. I thought he was mad and I didn't believe it for years. He was an older gentleman of the eccentric sort and the type to lecture anyone on anything as he felt he always knew more. It was until I spent an evening at Agave Bar & Grill that I learned he was indeed right about tequila, and I had some excellent cocktails, red mole for the first time and a tres leches that blew my mind. Given the sophisticated yet comfortable atmosphere and quality of food and libations, it was like being at a Mexican version of Mia Francesca. Viva Agave!
The Agave Bar & Grill should not be confused with "Blue Agave" which is also a Mexican restaurant and bar, but is located just off of State Street in the Gold Coast. Agave Bar & Grill instead can be found just north of the six-way corner of Lincoln, Barry and Greenview. The facade at Agave is notable for its thick wooden door, constructed in colonial style, but is actually from Belgium. Two agave plants are found next to the door, though rarely noticed as they are part of an impressive floral arrangement in warmer weather, and "Agave Bare & Grill" is backlit and spelled out over three large panels above the door and two large windows that overlook Lincoln and open out across the smallish sidewalk cafe in summer.
Push your way through the weighty door and you'll find a smallish narrow room that has been impressively decorated. After speaking with the owner, who was doubling as the maitre'd, we learned that the goal of the decor was to create a unique atmosphere and, dare I say, he succeeded. Highly set tables and a banquette covered in cowhide run down the length of the southern wall with its exposed brick and unframed paintings of agave and farm workers by the Mexican artist Mauricio Zapata. A large portrait of the famous Mexican artista Frida Kahlo can be seen dominating the small eastern wall in bright colors, though I noted that her monobrow is not so noticeable... A handful of ornate chandeliers, from the owner's home state of Jalisco, Mexico (the same place as where the copper sinks in the bathroom downstairs are from), hang from a recessed ceiling with wooden columns running perpendicular to it over a floor of marble and onyx.
A bar of blonde wood runs 25 feet down the northern wall, behind which is the backbar featuring backlit metal panels with agave plants in bass relief that were hand crafted by a woman from Mexico City. The center of the backbar offers small, ornate metal-plated alcoves in which bottles of tequila are showcased – you've seen these perhaps in churches with religious accoutrements placed in them. A modern version of old-fashioned lightbulbs, with copper filaments ablaze, hang exposed over the bar, which terminates with an intriguing selection of traditional, hand-painted masks mounted to the wall just before the kitchen. The kitchen itself is also a sight in that it is an open space so you can see the creations being made below an impressive array of immaculately polished steel pans.
To get yourself started, check out Agave's intriguing selection of tequila-infused cocktails. We had the Agave Margarita, made with Patron silver tequila and freshly squeezed citrus juices, so smooth and excellent that it should be considered dangerous to the uninitiated. The "Paloma" was refreshing (tequila, lime and Squirt soda), "El Corazon" was interesting (a salt & pepper lined glass with tequila mixed with pomegranate and passion fruit juices), the Black Cherry Margarita was superb, and I had a "shot" of tequila was served in a fluted glass that was slightly open at the end, almost like a champagne glass, and accompanied by sangrita (a non-alcoholic, spicy tomato juice concoction designed as a slowly sipped chaser). I can't remember what brand of tequila it was – it was that good. Agave features 50 premium tequilas—more than anyone else in Chicago—all of which are made from 100% blue agave. You'll not find Cuervo Gold here!
Agave also features a good selection of cerveza – three kinds of Modelo (bars usually only have Negro Modelo), as well as Corona (like a Mexican MGD), Sol, El Pacifico, Tecate, and both Dos Equis Lager and Amber &iViva Agave XX Amber, mi cerveza favorita! We also got chatting to a Guatemalan bartender named Daryl who was great, and confirmed what I had already surmised: the Guatemalan restaurant called "El Tinajon" (Spanish for large clay containers in which food is cooked slowly, without the taste of metal) on Roscoe, just east of Damen in Roscoe Village, is quite good and has put Guatemalan food on the map in Chicago. Also very good is the Guatemalan Dunkel-style bock they serve there called "Moza," which is Spanish for "mistress," as in your beer mistress, like Stella Artois once was for me – after writing this on another page here on the Chicago Bar Project, my wife, while we were dating, actually thought someone named Stella Artois was another girlfriend of mine! She still expresses a slight amount of jealousy over this today... It's not her fault, she's Latin. Anyway, Moza is also notable for its label illustrating a bald monk holding up a stein of Moza over a goat standing up on its hind legs. Nice.
For sustenance, and purely to keep the drinking going I can assure you, we had the enchiladas with red mole and almonds, which was magnificent. We also had the carne asada made with a ribeye steak instead of the usual skirt steak. This was ok but I prefer the lean-cut skirt steak over the fatty ribeye cut – the tamal served with it, however, was so excellent that my wife (and my very own gourmet chef) vowed to learn how to make this at home. For dessert, the tres leches was suggested with as much gusto as it was consumed with and was as good as any I've had from the Mexican bakeries in town.
Agave is owned by Martin Flores who also owns Chicago's Pizza, a local chain that offers some of the best pizza in town and delivery until 5am, one of whose locations is located across the street from Agave. Martin has done a great job with Agave, especially as he has hired an extremely friendly and helpful staff. The bartenders in particular were fantastic and, after having a slight issue with the food, even the head chef himself came out to offer an apology and comped us one of our entrees. This, along with a somewhat older, more relaxed crowd, gives Agave a most enjoyable atmosphere.
All in all, Agave Bar & Grill blows away Bar Celona, Taberna Tapatia and even Blue Agave in terms of quality of food, excellence of libations and ambiance. Even getting to Agave couldn't be simpler: cabs can be found everywhere and parking spots are unusually plentiful. Though the Loch Ness Monster has been spotted more frequently than the #11 Lincoln Avenue bus, you can pick that up as well if it's your lucky day – just don't forget your peanut butter! (A jar of which was spotted left behind at the Lincoln & Belmont bus stop after a night at Agave.) For more information and the menu, check out the Agave Bar & Grill website. ¦Buen provecho!
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