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RESTAURANTS : Colorful Flavor of Southwest : Blue Agave Captures Spirit of the Cuisine

February 02, 1995|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Many of our established Mexican dinner houses--I'm not naming any names--have been trying to draw new customers by literally painting themselves as Southwestern. They really do seem to think it's a matter of having the right colors . They tint their walls earth tones and pastels and ply everybody with red and blue, as well as yellow, tortilla chips. If only it were that simple.

Blue Agave, which bills itself as a Southwestern grill, makes a more, er, eccentric effort. This winsome place is owner George Gallardo's first restaurant, and though the dishes often succeed with aplomb, it is only erratically Southwestern.

But bear in mind that Blue Agave is in restaurant-poor Yorba Linda, far less known for its dependable, authentic Mexican restaurants than, say, Santa Ana (where the excellent Colima comes to mind).

Gallardo brings strong flavors, considerable spiciness and even a spoonful of passion to this cooking. True, some dishes, particularly the standard combo plates, are dominated by the usual mass of melted cheese, guacamole and overcooked beans, but several offerings are genuinely delightful. Hardly anything is deficient in flavor, which in itself makes the restaurant stand above the crowd.

This is not a lavish place, but the decor is lively and evocative. The walls are covered with fresco-style murals of Southwestern vistas. The windows are framed in the same robin's-egg blue you see everywhere in a Hopi village. In the middle of the main dining area, a dramatic skylight bathes the room in a faintly purplish glow.

Other appointments are simple: corn husks, tropical plants, faux- Native American artifacts. Meanwhile, practically in defiance of the restaurant's New Age ambience, Mexican pop music plays enthusiastically on background speakers.

The best thing to eat here is also the least expensive: chicken pozole , a filling, moss-green soup made of hominy and chicken in an intense tomatillo broth. Gallardo serves the soup, chock-full of meat and big corn kernels, in a huge blue ceramic dish.

Alongside are four pint-sized molcajete -style serving dishes (made of plastic, rather than the traditional volcanic rock), each brimming with a different condiment: minced cilantro, chopped onion, ground red chili, crumbled cotija cheese.

Another good match for those winning condiments is sopa de frijoles negros , a cuminy puree of black beans swirled with sour cream. If only the gloppy Texas beans that accompany the entrees had half as much flavor.

But perhaps you want something gaudy. For you, there's Montego Bay coconut shrimp (hey, Montego is in Jamaica--what's that doing here?). This appetizer is deep-fried, candied coconut shrimp glazed with a sweet orange chipotle marmalade. You might expect to find it in a Caribbean restaurant, such as one of the Cha Cha Chas in Los Angeles County, but it doesn't fit here, and anyway, it's just plain too sweet.

The Hopi appetizer platter is a hit-or-miss affair. The plate is lined with multicolored Southwestern nachos (no surprise). Atop the nachos are layers of various foods: a dead-average grilled quesadilla, deep-fried blue and yellow corn taquitos and something the menu calls Southwestern skewers.

The skewers--one of chicken, one of steak--make the platter worthwhile. They feature good hunks of grilled meat brushed with an arrestingly flavored ginger-serrano pepper marmalade.

The Southwestern entrees, as the menu calls them, are more El Torito than El Paso, and a few of them work just fine. Carnitas--slow-cooked hunks of pork--can be wonderful along Santa Ana's 1st Street. Blue Agave's version is rather stringy, but it's crackling on the surface and wrapped up in a banana leaf, the way it might be done in far off Yucatan.

One flat-out Yucatecan dish is Cozumel grilled chicken, wrapped in banana leaf before grilling and topped with a tart honey- achiote (annatto seed) sauce. What this has to do with the Southwest I can't say. The dish works, anyway.

One dish that does not work is Arizona chicken mole enchiladas. Don't expect a classic mole poblano or oaxaquena , those complex, incredibly laborious sauces made with crushed chocolate, nuts and a multitude of spices. The thin sauce on these enchiladas manages to be both bitter and insipid.

However, I'd come back any time for platillo de chili verde , a delicious pork stew. It's loaded with chunks of lean pork tender enough to melt in the mouth . . . in a blistering-hot chili and tomatillo sauce.

Though the meat is delicious and the sauce pulls no punches, I could do without the gimmick of serving the stew inside a deep-fried flour tortilla cup, and I do wish the tired Mexican rice and gluey refritos were more like the home-style versions found in Santa Ana. Maybe Gallardo just needs more time.

Several interesting margaritas are mixed here, including one made with fresh orange juice, served in its own shaker.

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