Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Agave (Ashland, Oregon)

If you have any sense, I won’t be able to convince you that the tacos at Agave are anything other than mediocre. But once, under the influence of oxytocin and a little alcohol, I ate tacos there that can only be described as transcendent. I objected to the aesthetics of them--the repackaging of Mexican food as self-consciously healthful and mild--yet I could not deny the sheer pleasure of biting into one. There are advantages to Mexico as discovered by yuppies over Mexico as imported nostalgically over the border by immigrants. For one, the meat was cooked perfectly, meltingly, rather than grilled or fried to a crisp. Wait, sorry, that’s the only thing. But that went a long way, and everything else was good. The salsa, while it lacked heat, had the sharp and sweet flavors of cilantro and fresh tomatoes of the non-insipid variety. The tortillas were at once crisp and soft, not stale, damp, and falling apart.

I didn’t think about any of this then--I was too surprised at how thoroughly I enjoyed it. I had scoffed at this place every time I passed its signage that proudly displays a plant as if it’s a revelation. Imagine if it had been named “Cabbage”. Though perhaps it should have been. There’s plenty of cabbage on the menu, and the only agave for sale is in the form of tequila. You may need it, if their sunny attempts to transport you to Mexico fail and you’re forced to face the food under the garish grey light of these latitudes in winter.

These transcendent tacos, they are only known by one other person, the same who I lunched with. It was pushing our luck to go back to Agave after sharing such gustatory delight there. It is to the cook’s credit that the tacos deluded us into thinking that they emanated from some ontic stability, to which we could return at our leisure. We did. The tacos literally fell apart in my hands, despite their wet innards being quarantined by two tortillas. The tortillas had come out of a bag, probably one that was at least two days old. The moldy aftertaste came from precisely that. The foundation on which tacos are built had sloughed onto our plates. What was left?

First we denied anything was amiss. Then we balked, and, finally, we rationalized. That first halcyon visit, we had come at around four when hardly anyone had been here (this second time it was 1pm). The cook must have had the time to take real care with the food, and probably there had been a different cook. Maybe they normally use fresh tortillas, but ran out today. Yes, yes, the lunchtime rush, the cook, that must be it. The experience, no, it was real, surely.

Meanwhile, we were busy with the wait staff, maintaining our own delusion, or maybe the restaurant’s, I’m really not sure any more. How is everything? Oh, good--no, delicious! The performance of enthusiasm that flares up in the friction between professionally doting waiters and polite customers can get a bit scary. The line between cheeriness and violence feels thin. The same unnaturally widened eyes could belong to someone yelling “good, I’m glad you like it!” at you or to someone stabbing you with a chef’s knife. I’m grateful whenever the fervor dies down.

Then came the flan. It more or less broke my mind. It came with a purple orchid, which my companion optimistically took as a personal gift from our waitress. If the flan was a part of this gift, it was the most mixed signal I’ve ever received. Of course, as it is with mixed signals, I wasn’t sure what part of it came from myself. Settling a slightly warm chunk of creamy custard onto my tongue with a spoon, I was given a wave of nausea. Whence? The texture was lovely, the flavor was at once strong caramel and smooth milk, and it was sweet but not overpoweringly sweet. I put another morsel in my mouth, and felt instantly gravitated toward the floor. It was perfect, yet I was not inhaling it, I was choking it down. I wanted to throw it back up, yet I ate my entire share of it. Our waitress glowingly asked us “how is the flan?” I must have looked stunned and indecisive, like a squirrel getting run down by a car. Thankfully, my companion swooped in to say “bliss”. I wasn’t sure if this was intended for our dessert or for the girl who served it to us, who seemed satisfied with the answer and went on her merry way.

I hardly remember the bill, or even going out the door. Eating there had sunk me deep into an epistemological crisis.


The Taco: 3/5 (Some of the time, if you're sufficiently deluded, it goes beyond taconess to become something equally beautiful, the rest of the time it's a mediocre taco.)

Accoutrement: 1/5 (There are no salsas--only that which is already in the taco.)

Value: 2/5 ($2.75 a taco at the very cheapest, and just down the road better tacos can be had for $1.50.)

Overall: 2.5/5