It's hard to say what value to give to the exterior of a restaurant. As often as not, it's the corner hole with crumbling plaster dishing the best grub of its kind. Other times, an emphasis on quality outside seems to foreshadow an emphasis on quality inside.
Blue Agave Mexican Grill is an example of the latter.
The North Nevada Avenue restaurant occupies the space that used to hold Bible-thumping BJ's Brick House BBQ, but you'd never recognize it as such; the entire building has been overhauled and features a brand-new adobe façade, a spacious patio and a brightly lit interior of warm colors, music and blaring telenovelas.
For eats, the menu of burritos, chilaquiles, street-style soft tacos, tamales and the like is simple enough to not overextend the kitchen, but deep enough to offer selection. Then there's the screen in front of the cash register that displays your order back to you — a nice gesture for an independent restaurant, and one that smacks of a desire to get it right.
Most items come with your choice of meat, ranging from broiled chicken to barbacoa to chicken adobado. Grab the adobado in a homemade corn tortilla taco ($2.49) covered in chopped onions, cilantro and the addictive, smoky heat of a black-flecked and oily red chili sauce. The barbacoa ($2.49) and pork carnitas ($2.49) are also decent, but incomparable to the delicious low burn from the adobado. And seriously: Don't miss the chili sauce.
For traditionalists, the enchiladas ($2.99) come in chicken, ground beef or cheese varieties, and the tamales in chicken or beef. Both stand-bys get topped with creamy sauce derivatives of chipotle, jalapeño, mole, spinach or poblano, and are accompanied by a small side of lettuce and tomato.
The dark brown mole is not earth-shattering but does offer a tang to go along with the tons of salt it contains; the jalapeño and chipotle, especially, taste more interesting and fresh, and seem to benefit more from the richer texture. Also, the tamales ($2.89) have a soft, pleasant grainy aspect.
In other areas, the papa asada with sirloin ($5.99) is nice if you're craving a humongous baked potato covered in sour cream and cheese; the flautas ($2.49) arrive topped with cheese, lettuce and sour cream (though ours were over-fried); and the burrito ($1.99 to $3.79) is your standard beans-and-meat affair in a house-made flour tortilla.
Dessert comes in the form of a rather tasty Oreo-crusted cheesecake ($3.49) made in-house. It's somewhat on the dry side, but liquid satisfaction is available in the tamarindo ($1.89) or cinnamon-and-vanilla-laced horchata ($1.89).
Ultimately, Blue Agave is not the slam-dunk Mexican joint our city could use. The tacos are good, and worth ordering, but they're more expensive than those found just down Platte Avenue in the trucks; the enchiladas and tamales benefit from creamy infusions, but would be better with shredded beef and less salt; and the soups were out each time I visited.
But what Blue Agave offers in spades is dishes made with originality by a family matriarch. There's a modernity here, and a flavorful edge to its traditional offerings. More than anything done to the walls of the building, that says all you need to know.