Lunch at Los Agaves (Santa Barbara, CA)

Every one of us can recall when one of our favorite restaurants closes its doors for good. It’s all the more upsetting when it was responsible for introducing you to a defining dish, one that stays in your memory long after you’ve had it, one that hasn’t been matched by any restaurant since. Such was the case with the molcajete made by a Mexican restaurant in a small town in the redwood country of Northern California. Sometime last year, La Hacienda shut down operations in Orick. I had been anticipating a return visit on this current road trip before a Yelper mentioned its demise.

Why this drawn-out lament? I discovered that Los Agaves in Santa Barbara claims molcajete as one of its specialties, in fact, the first item under Especialidads. So while I confirmed with my own eyes that La Hacienda was dark as I drove through Orick two days ago, I at least had Los Agaves to look forward to.

Only a block from the disappointing La Super Rica, Los Agaves is not a terribly big place though it does have an interesting layout with side rooms, tiled floor and paintings on the walls. The sense of being rushed to order was off-putting: as soon as you enter, you must study the paper menu and specials on the blackboard, then place your order at the counter. With only a couple of customers ahead of us, there wasn’t much time. I knew what I wanted but my wife felt pressured to make a decision, not a good way to start a dining experience. You’re given a number, then take a seat somewhere in the restaurant. Chips and salsa, water and silverware are brought to your table.

The molcajete (☆☆☆) here was served in a cast-iron bowl, surprising since images posted on Yelp showed them in the namesake lava rock vessels. A minor matter. Called Earth and Sea, the entrée had beef strips, chicken breast cut into little cubes, shrimp and fish with a single roasted yellow chile and a grilled onion stalk, topped with an artfully sliced avocado half. Tomato sauce thickened the tasty broth, spicy, herbal and savory. The house-made corn tortillas were exceptional. This molcajete holds its own against the better-made versions. My standard is still the one once served in Orick.

My wife’s Taquitos Dorados (☆☆☆½) were unlike most taquitos: their generous filling of shredded chicken required only a roll and a half of the corn tortilla before being fried to crispy perfection, sliced in half and laid on top of a salad of shredded iceberg, chopped tomatoes and guacamole. These were meaty taquitos.

Our good friends preceded us here back in April and raved about their Chiles Norteños, another specialty, roasted poblano chiles sliced in half and filled with shrimp, chipotle salsa and Oaxacan cheese.

The food was great here, but the dining experience left a lot to be desired. Apart from the aforementioned ordering experience, it was quite loud. Many customers were here on their lunch hour, which exacerbated the circus atmosphere, and the wait staff and busboys rushing around and aggressively rearranging furniture were not conducive to a relaxing meal.

Earth and Sea Molcajete
Taquitos Dorados
Clockwise from top left: salsa quemada, salsa habañera, chips salsa, salsa aguacate
Clockwise from top left: sliced pickled jalapeños, salsa chipotle, salsa tomatillo and pico de gallo

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