I’m quite sure that I’ve never hugged an employee upon leaving a restaurant, but there’s a first time for everything.
But the staff at the new Agave Uptown in Oakland are so friendly — and I don’t mean in an overbearingly fake way, but in the way that we felt we had made more than one new friend that night — it almost didn’t matter how good the food was. And this isn’t just the mezcal talking, though there was plenty of that, too.
Agave Uptown is the second location of Agave to open in the Bay Area, but given that the first is in Healdsburg, it’s no wonder the restaurant is unfamiliar to most of us in the East Bay.
In addition to the two Agave restaurants, chef Octavio Diaz and his investors have four restaurants between the town of Sonoma and Healdsburg, including one Asian restaurant called Persimmon. “The Asians and the Mexicans have a lot in common. They just don’t know it yet,” he quipped.
When Diaz was invited to bring his popular Agave concept to newly opened Kapor Center for Social Impact, he says he couldn’t refuse.
Just as the Kapor Center has a social mission of bringing tech education to those who might not normally have access to it, Diaz intends to offer internships and opportunities at Agave for those looking to get a foothold in the culinary industry. He also works to support small farmers and artisans in Oaxaca, where he is from.
Diaz hails from Santa Gertrudis, which is Southwest of Oaxaca City. He came to the U.S. to live with his aunt and uncle when he was 13 to get a better education than he could in Mexico.
Even though he had been around food his entire life — his mother, grandmother and father all cooked — he didn’t think of becoming a chef until relatively late. When he was around 30 years’ old and working in the hospitality industry, he had a realization: “I love food, I love people, and I was very passionate about it. I decided to get more into the kitchen.”
For those who are used to California-style Mexican food, Oaxacan can be a revelation. According to Diaz, Oaxacan food is characterized by its spices, various kinds of chile peppers and, of course, making everything by hand.
“We [are] making our own spice blends with most peppers and spices from Oaxaca,” said Diaz. He’s using many of these staples in his signature mole sauces ($19). “We’ll be starting with our mole negro, which is our king mole, and will add different moles later. You can have your mole with chicken, lamb, crab, vegetables or whatever you want.”
Traditional mole is a deeply complex, rich sauce, usually served over meat, that often starts with a base of several varieties of roasted chilies. Some moles contain chocolate and cinnamon, and some have pumpkin seeds — a mole containing anywhere from 20 to 30 ingredients is not uncommon.
Given the popularity of gluten-free diets, it was important, Diaz said, for him to come up with a gluten-free version. (Many traditional moles use a kind of Mexican cracker as a thickener.) In addition, he has replaced the more traditional chicken stock with vegetarian stock so vegetarians can enjoy mole over a plate of grilled vegetables. Vegans: Diaz has got you covered with quite a few dishes.
The mole we tried was rich and complex, just as mole should be. Slightly smoky with light chocolate notes, its subtle sweetness came from raisins, plantains and several different kinds of nuts, our server said. It was the kind of thing you’d want to take home in a jar to eat at home, and in a few months, the manager told us, you’ll be able to do just that.
Later, Chef Diaz came out and told us how his moles had gotten so good — his own mother came in to the kitchen numerous times before opening to train several of the restaurant’s chefs, sharing with them her secret recipe.
“She’d come taste it and give them a talking to when they weren’t doing it right,” he said.
In the future, Diaz plans for Agave to serve lunchtime take-out. Customers will be able to pre-order and pre-pay on Yelp, walk in, pick up their taco order, and be on their way.
About those tacos ($9 for two): While we enjoyed all of them, we were surprised that our favorite was the vegetarian option — a divine mix of wild mushrooms and mole.
We also loved our ceviche starter ($12), which had bits of kiwi mixed in with the more traditional seabass, cherry tomatoes and sliced radishes.
For those new to Oaxacan cuisine, try the gigantic tlayuda ($14), a crispy tortilla topped with black beans, cheese and, often, meat. And don’t miss the molotes ($7 for six; $13 for 12), masa dumplings stuffed with chorizo, potatoes and cheese.
Like Diaz, beverage director Leonel Lopez Soriano was born in Oaxaca, and he came to Healdsburg as a teenager. He worked his way up in Healdsburg restaurants, starting as a dishwasher while in school, and later becoming a bartender. That was when he first realized his passion for working with agave spirits.
This passion is apparent in Agave’s cocktail list, which has a strong emphasis on mezcal and tequila. Many of the cocktails have large ice cubes with herb leaves and/or pomegranate seeds suspended in them, adding a beautiful visual component. Favorites include the Guelaguetza Sour (mezcal, passion fruit, mint tincture, simple syrup, egg white) and the El Mixteco (mezcal, tequila, spicy tamarind, pineapple syrup, orange, lime). They all run $12 to $13.
Notably, Agave offers several craft beers from Mexico on draft and in the bottle, as well as local Bay Area brews and Sonoma County wines. Much of the mezcal list comes from producers Diaz and his partners know personally.
Of course it must be mentioned that upscale Oaxacan food is already available nearby at Calavera, and so, inevitably, comparisons will be made.
According to Diaz, the plans for Agave Uptown had been in the works for three years, and he had no idea that Calavera would be opening so close by. They both share the same architecture firm, Arcsine.
“They opened first, but we’re honored to be put in the same category. That’s huge for us,” said Diaz. But he said there is plenty to differentiate the two. What sets Agave Uptown apart is that it’s a deeply personal project. “My recipes are from many generations of my own family,” he said,” I watched my own grandmothers doing everything by hand.”
Indeed, our meal at Agave Uptown could be described as upscale comfort food. The food, the cocktails and the experience overall felt like a big warm hug.