Agave Taco Bar Brings Northern Mexico to Southern Florida

Tacos de trompo
Tacos de trompo
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Authentic. It's a word that gets thrown around a lot but often without much merit. For most, the word evokes the idea of something pure or unadulterated. A letter of authenticity, for example, confirms something as not counterfeit. It's genuine — a true representation of whatever it stands for.

Which is why, when I call 2-month-old Agave Taco Bar an "authentic" Mexican restaurant, what I really mean is that chef-owner Ivan Alarcon is being true not just to his heritage but also to his craft.

Agave Taco Bar

2949 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Call 561-530-9065, or visit agave-tacobar.com.Tacos de trompo $7.99Sopes del jefe $7.49Barbacoa taco (two per order) $5.99Menudo (cup) $3.99Michelada $8

The best way to describe such veracity is with Alarcon's tacos de trompo, considered his Fort Lauderdale restaurant's signature dish. These two-bite tacos are tiny bombs of flavor, exhibiting ingredients so vibrant — so piquant — that just one bite can transport you to the streets of northern Mexico.

At least, that's the feeling Alarcon says he is searching for. A native of Monterrey, Mexico, his first order of business whenever he returns home is not to see friends or visit family, but to hunt down the first street vendor able to quench his taco craving.

"Everything on this menu reminds me of something that occurred in my life, from a childhood memory to cooking with my grandmother or stopping at a street vendor with my grandfather," says Alarcon. "We're not just another traditional Mexican restaurant. It's my interpretation of Monterrey, for the people of South Florida."

That includes, of course, said signature dish, deemed a regional specialty of sorts across Mexican states like Nuevo Leon, Durango, and Chihuahua, where large slabs of pork are cooked on a vertical spit and seasoned with a combination of spices and a blend of guajillo and ancho chilies that stains the meat a bright, near-fluorescent red. The outer layer, crackling and crispy, is shaved from the spit and often served with a handful of fine-chopped onion, cilantro, and a slice or two of fresh pineapple.

At Agave, Alarcon doesn't use a spit but marinates fat cuts of pork and beef with the same blend of chilies and spices he recalls from his youth, forming a pasty-thick sauce the color of brick. The resulting tacos are small enough to fit in one hand, stuffed to the brim with meat atop a layer of sauce so generous that cubes of onion tumble to the plate when you grab hold to take a bite. Good thing they come five per order, instead of the usual three, making them worth their weight in porky goodness.

Sopes del jefe
Sopes del jefe
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Despite the hefty seasoning and hearty sauce, the predominant flavor here remains the meat, followed closely by the slow burn of chili-spiked adobo. Those in the know will ask for theirs to be cooked extra-crispy on the grill, which results in an almost bacon-like succulence similar to the spit-cooked meats you'll find in the streets of Monterrey.

A self-taught chef, Alarcon grew up splitting his time between the United States and Mexico. After close to a decade living the corporate lifestyle postcollege, in 2010, he abandoned his career to open a restaurant in Davie with his wife. They named it El Agave Azul, what was once conceived as a catering business but morphed into a successful counter-service restaurant. The modest 500-square-foot space — much of it reserved for the kitchen — had little room for customer seating.

For Azul's most loyal patrons, that didn't matter; the restaurant simply transformed into a bring-your-own-seating type of deal, people sharing bottles of hot sauce and bowls of salsa over paper plates filled with tacos, seated at folding chairs and pop-up tables on the sidewalk.

Today, Agave Taco Bar is the modern progression of El Agave Azul, says Alarcon, and the menu is a more focused presentation of the original restaurant's most popular dishes. It offers everything from a traditional, fiery-red menudo soup to aguachile de res — a dish so unknown to Americans that should you Google it, the resulting query will produce only links to Spanish-language recipes.

Although the menu is different, the atmosphere isn't. The service at Agave is California chill. Ordering is uncomplicated. And seating is optional, but also plentiful and varied, offering the comforts of a larger, more elaborate restaurant with a fast-casual-eatery-meets-coffee-bar cool vibe.

Booth seating with table service provides sit-down service that's friendly and efficient, while a long bar has more than 20 seats, perfect for a casual midday meal or late-night taco feast. Farther back, a half-dozen velveteen couches in swimming-pool blue add a pop of color, and more lounge-like touch.

Barbacoa taco
Barbacoa taco
Photo by CandaceWest.com

No matter how (or when) you choose to dine, if you've come for the tacos, you're in luck. The menu boasts a staggering 15 different meats, a selection of beef, chicken, pork, and fish ranging from a carne asada and picadillo to chicken marinated in salsa verde or ancho tinga. There's also pork belly, cream-sauce-smothered poblano peppers, and grilled shrimp.

Order the barbacoa, a specialty here made from cheek and tongue. In Alarcon's native northern Mexico, it's a traditional practice to cook the head of the cow — nothing wasted — including brains and eyes. After hours of braising, the meat become so soft that it nearly melts in your mouth.

The barbacoa is usually eaten for breakfast, although you can order them anytime at Agave, served on fresh corn tortillas with a mix of chopped onion and cilantro, a squeeze of lime juice, and a spoonful of salsa. Alarcon's are served two per order with a choice of flour or corn tortillas and a choice of toppings, including a purple-tinged escabeche de cebolla (a Mexican relish of tender strips of pickled red onion flavored with oregano and cumin).

When ordering trompo, you might be intrigued — as I was — about the chef's use of flour tortillas. Don't be. These are delivered daily from a nearby baker who also hails from Alarcon's home city. Turns out flour is actually the more accepted ingredient in places like Monterrey, and in fact across much of northern Mexico, considered the taco-meat conveyor of choice over corn tortillas. The area is known to make at least 40 varieties, which allow for dishes like the gringa, a version of the trompo served in a grilled flour tortilla, its edges blistered to a satisfying crunch and covered with melted cheese.

No matter how you order yours, the tacos pair best with an ice-cold Michelada dusted with tanjin, a rust-colored, citrus-tinged, pepper powder Alarcon says he puts on everything from potato chips and popcorn to fruit and drink glasses. For this drink, it creates a tangy garnish for a Mexican-style bloody mary.

Choco flan
Choco flan
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Of course, not everything at Agave is traditional. In Mexico, you won't find menudo available all day, every day. It's typically served on Sundays, or as a post-New Year's celebration dish, but you can order it any time you like here. The blood-red broth is based on Alarcon's grandmother's recipe, beef tripe cut into small pieces and cured in lime for 24 hours before it's cooked for several hours in a three-pepper marinade.

There's also a section of the menu dubbed "botanas" — Alarcon's version of Mexican snacks or small plates, each made to order. Many of them aren't what you'd find in Monterrey, but they're good. That includes the alitasasadas, grilled chicken wings the size of your fist, smothered in a tangy sauce Alarcon created from scratch at home. His children approved, so it went on the menu.

Last, Alarcon will point you to his "favorites," three dishes he's customized to represent the flavors of his culture. The star here: sopes del jefe, two handcrafted corn cake cups cradling salsa-verde-smothered chicharron mixed with a velvety tuft of refried pinto beans, chopped cilantro, sautéed white onion, crema, and melted queso. The flavors blend seamlessly.

"These dishes are a taste of what I've lived, a sampling of the flavors from my memories of Monterrey," says Alarcon. "My goal is to change people's perspective of Mexican food and help my customers create their own memories in the process."

Agave Taco Bar might be a mix of modern and traditional Mexican, but it makes for a more genuine experience than most taco joints around, thanks mainly to Alarcon's honest execution. The chef has a beautiful way of sharing his memories of Monterrey through food, and somehow that's what makes the whole thing truly authentic. Go figure.

Agave Taco Bar
2949 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Call 561-530-9065, or visit agave-tacobar.com.

  • Tacos de trompo $7.99
  • Sopes del jefe $7.49
  • Barbacoa taco (two per order) $5.99
  • Menudo (cup) $3.99
  • Michelada $8
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Agave Taco Bar

2949 N. Federal Highway
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33306

954-530-9065

www.agave-tacobar.com


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