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O.C. Eats

The Food's Tequila For

Innovative and traditional cuisine are treasures of Yorba Linda's Blue Agave.

August 10, 2000|MARTIN BOOE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The walls are murals of Southwestern pueblo life. A pastel-framed window offers a view of a stout, footlighted cactus. In the center of the main dining area, a Doric column thrusts upward from a pedestal of Mexican tile into a rotunda awash in pink neon light. The tables are gleaming, the booths comfortable, the atmosphere festive.

All in all, Blue Agave Southwest Grill might have been orchestrated by some slightly loopy stepsister of Georgia O'Keeffe, but that's half the fun. OK, so it's a slightly kitschy evocation of some Four Corners never-never land. Still, this Yorba Linda eatery (a two-mile jaunt north of the Riverside Freeway) shows imagination in food and decor.

Blue Agave has been in business six years, but you can tell that owner George Gallardo, an alumnus of Las Brisas in Laguna Beach, loves to play with his food. The theme-restaurant goofiness is not at all at the expense of the food, which is based on excellent ingredients and nuanced sauces.

In fact, this place would be a noteworthy watering hole even if there were no restaurant attached; its cheery bar carries 92 premium tequilas, ranging in price up to Herradura Seleccion Suprema ($42 a shot). Needless to say, Blue Agave makes knockout margaritas, notably the Gold Cadillac: Cuervo 1800, triple sec and fresh lime juice on the rocks with a sidecar of Grand Marnier that you float over it. It's one of those irresistible, lethally smooth cocktails that can really sneak up on you. There are also fresh fruit margaritas and a rather syrupy Blue Agave margarita; all go well with the Chippewa Rainbow Chips (surprisingly light) and salsa.

The Hopi Appetizer Platter offers a wide selection from the starter menu. A bargain at $10.95, it includes the tequila citrus chicken flautas, nicely set off by their sauce of chipotle and roasted red peppers. The Southwestern skewers show this kitchen knows how to flirt with fusion without going overboard: The juicy beef and chicken kebabs are brushed with a ginger-serrano marinade, grilled and then served with a chipotle-spiked orange marmalade that finds a nice balance between sweet and hot. The steak taquitos in blue tortillas can be dry and dull, but the Tempe grilled chicken quesadilla is wonderful, with its chipotle-tomatillo-serrano salsa. (All these items are available as individual appetizers as well.)

If you want to start with something lighter, try the pungent and flavorful chicken pozole. It's plump kernels of white hominy and chunks of chicken afloat in a wonderfully fresh tomatillo broth. With it come bowls of red onion, cilantro, serrano peppers and cotija cheese, so you can doctor it to your taste.

The menu prominently features shrimp, but the kitchen seems to be struggling with its preparation. The Blue Agave shrimp, which have a Baja-style tomato, onion and lemon sauce, and the sun devil shrimp, sauteed in a puree of New Mexico chiles and cactus pears, are nice ideas. Unfortunately, when I tried them, both fell flat because the shrimp were mushy and flavorless. The Montego Bay coconut shrimp, deep-fried in a coconut batter, are better, as is the bacon-wrapped shrimp in the Kiva steak platter, a grilled steak and shrimp combination.

As that last dish shows, Blue Agave gets good beef. The Kiva steak (a New York strip) is slathered with a charred tomatillo and serrano cream sauce with a pinch of ginger in it. The smokiness of the meat made me suspect mesquite, but upon inquiry I was told that it came from a combination of the hot pepper marinade and meat juices splattering on the grill. Also outstanding is the carne asada adovada, the same steak in a blackened tomatillo sauce.

My dinner companions and I found ourselves gravitating toward the more innovative side of the menu. Nevertheless, Blue Agave does offer more traditional Mexican dishes, and if the carnitas are any indication, those old standards are first-rate. The shredded, slow-cooked pork, marinaded for two days in orange juice, had that magical quality of being chewy to start, then melting in your mouth with a burst of smoky, slightly salty flavor.

The side dishes are very good. I liked the snappy, pan-seared vegetables sprinkled with paprika, and the creamy garlic-rosemary mashed potatoes. The tasty "Texas beans" that come with some dishes are redolent of smoked ham and garlic, making them a far cry from the standard glob of refried beans you get at most of our Mexican restaurants. There's an unbreaded pasilla chile relleno made of a pasilla pepper (unbreaded); it has a clean, pleasantly bitter taste. Most dishes come with a dollop of sweet corn pudding wrapped in a tiny bit of corn husk.

In the entree department, the Apache chicken quemada, topped with yet another variation of that good cilantro cream sauce, is impressively moist and tender for breast meat. The Tempe tacos with mahi-mahi were also nice, the fish fresh and mild. The Puerto Nuevo tostada combines mahi-mahi, mushrooms and warm shrimp with greens tossed in a pumpkin seed citrus dressing. A topping of sour cream and fresh raspberries give it an unusual twist.

When it's time for dessert, the chocolate souffle is sure to satisfy one's more primal urges. The warm, cakey chocolate is topped with a raspberry-pear sauce and whipped cream. I found the flan a bit wan, but the rice pudding tostada was pungent with cinnamon and drizzled with prickly pear cactus sauce.

BE THERE

* Blue Agave Southwest Grill is moderate. Appetizers $6.50-$10.95. Entrees $7.95-$14.95. Blue Agave Southwest Grill, 18601 Yorba Linda Blvd., Yorba Linda. (714) 970-5095. Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

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