It may have opened a few weeks late, but the wait was worth it. When Agave Uptown finally opened its doors yesterday on the ground floor of the Kapor Center for Social Impact, it was for delicious authentic food in a bright new spot in the hip Uptown neighborhood of Oakland.
The restaurant is headed by chef Octavio Diaz, who was busy on opening night working the kitchen and talking to the guests in the full dining room. Diaz and his brothers run the original Agave up in Healdsburg, as well as a nearby market and taqueria there, Casa del Mole, which sells their original mole sauce to take home. The brothers, who are from a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, are co-owners and partners in a few other restaurants as well.
Diaz originally came to Rohnert Park to live with his uncle when he was just 13 years old. It's that uncle who now graces the wall of Agave Uptown as part of a mural that represents the different parts of Oaxaca -- agave plants, textiles, and a good luck jackrabbit.
Well-designed and with large open windows, the restaurant fits about 80-100 people, has an open kitchen, and full bar, as well as a private dining room area for events. Eventually, it will also have a take-out counter for lunch. Reportedly, it was Mitch Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, who used to eat at Diaz's Healdsburg restaurant, who convinced Diaz to open the Oakland location. As the ground floor space to the Kapor Center for Social Impact, which has three different organizations working to increase diversity and social impact among students, Agave Uptown has said it will focus on hiring locals to work the kitchen and dining room, and will use the space as a sort of incubator to teach employees the ropes of the restaurant industry.
Certainly, our waiter was friendly and attentive, eager to tell us all about the history of Oaxacan cuisine and recommend the best mezcal on the menu.
Subtitled "Mole & Mezcal," that's what Agave is all about. Mezcal, a sibling of tequila, is made from the agave plant and is a specialty of Oaxaca. It also tends to have less of a kick than tequila and has been booming in popularity in recent years as small-batch mezcals have made their way up here. If you're curious (or an aficionado), then Agave is the place to go. With more than 30 different mezcals on the menu, you can just sip with your meal or try one of the house specialty cocktails. The La Niña Fresa, a mezcal strawberry drink with an actual strawberry frozen inside the giant ice cube, was sweet and refreshing. There are also Mexican craft beers, as a well as a few local brews, and Sonoma County wines. Or, try the house-made ginger beer, which isn't too spicy and tastes more like a soft ginger cocktail than a beer.
Now that you've had your drinks, it's time to pick from the expansive authentic Oaxacan menu. Yes, there are tacos and guacamole -- and I'm sure they're delicious too -- but if you really want to get the taste of Oaxaca, then you need to try one of the specialties: tasajo (a kind of thinly sliced beef), tlayuda (a kind of Oaxacan pizza), or the molotes (a tiny, sort of dense tamale).
We started with a half-order of molotes, which are small and filled with chorizo and a sweet potato blend, topped with queso fresco. They're tasty finger food to get the meal started. I could have kept eating and eating them, but it was time to move on to our main dishes.
Of course, we had to try the house specialty: Mole Negro de Oaxaca. You can get the signature sauce with carnitas, chicken, fish, oysters, or a vegetarian version. We went with the Rocky chicken, which was perfectly evenly cooked in a rotisserie before being coated in the subtle chocolate sauce.
Now, the mole. There's a reason the recipe is a family secret, passed down from Diaz's mom, with over 20 special (and also secret) ingredients from Oaxaca. It's not quite like any mole I've ever had -- not too sweet, slightly complex and smoky. Basically, it's addictive. Fortunately, the plate comes with tasty rice, beans, and house-made tortillas that can be used to soak up every last bit of sauce.
To balance all that food, we decided on a Agave salad: romaine hearts, avocado, queso fresco, pumpkin seeds, tomatoes, and lots and lots of sweet red and orange peppers. It was surprisingly sweet and light, with just a touch of spice from the peppers. A perfectly made salad and complement to the rest of the meal.
All the vegetables, meat, and fish are bought from local farmers markets, in Oakland, San Francisco, and up in Healdsburg. There are also some existing vendor relationships with farms around Healdsburg and some Oaxacan specialty items have to come straight from Mexico.
To finish it all off, we ordered a Mexican rice pudding, topped with local peaches. I'm not a huge fan of rice pudding, but it was well-made -- creamy, sweet without being too sweet, a taste of vanilla mixed nicely with the peaches.