Salsa to the rescue 

Few highlights at Agave Grill.

click to enlarge WARM AND TASTY: The white cheese dip with chorizo.
  • WARM AND TASTY: The white cheese dip with chorizo.

From the looks of it, Benton's newest Mexican-American restaurant was doing quite well on a recent Saturday night. The place was absolutely packed. There were even a few patio-sitters, celebrating the unseasonably cool weather. But the peacefulness outside belied the panic within.

Having grown a little too used to what the Little Rock Mexican food scene has to offer, we were quite excited to venture down Interstate 30 just a bit. A few minutes after being seated, our enthusiasm started to wane. The staff members seemed frantic. They were at once overwhelmed and aimless. Never a good sign. The woman at the table next to us picked at her plate and gave a disappointed look to her husband. As they left, we noticed more than half of their food remained on the table, untouched.

Agave has a definite sports bar atmosphere. There's lots of seating, concrete floors, lots of nice ambient light coming through large windows, and every seat is within eyeshot of a huge television. An MMA fight night raged on as we nibbled on chips and salsa. The blood flowing from an opponent's gashed nose looked a little too close to enchilada sauce for our taste. But others didn't seem to mind.

Back to that salsa, though. Agave has a great salsa — fresh tomatoes, onion and cilantro are blended into a slightly chunky mixture. We loved the texture and also the heat from fresh jalapenos. The chips were thin and crispy, sprinkled with a nice bit of seasoning blend, and it didn't take long to take down the first bowl.

We'd stay away from the house margarita ($5). It's heavy on the sweet and sour mix and light on the tequila. The rim of our glass was halfway covered in salt, and the drink tasted as if the other half had fallen in. To be fair, we almost feel bad complaining about a $5 margarita, but if this one had been even a tiny bit better, its shortcomings would've been easier to overlook. A little fresh lime juice and decent brand or amount of tequila can go a long way.

We ordered two appetizers — the guacamole ($7) and the queso fundido ($9). If there's one thing we can't overlook at a Mexican-inspired restaurant, it's bad guacamole. Fresh Agave's was not. It had an unappealing sheen to it and looked more brownish-yellow than green. The avocado seemed to have been pureed, as there were no fresh chunks. It reminded us of the packets of pre-made guacamole you find in the grocery store with large chunks of onion and tomatoes thrown in. We left most of it on the table, which rarely, if ever, happens.

click to enlarge PORK FAJITAS, CARNE ENCHILADAS: Fruit in the former, cinnamon in the latter.
  • PORK FAJITAS, CARNE ENCHILADAS: Fruit in the former, cinnamon in the latter.

The queso fundido didn't arrive until after our entrees. The manager came to the table and apologized and offered to take it off our tab, which we appreciated. We've had this dish at other restaurants and expected a slightly different presentation. Instead of arriving sizzling on a metal fajita plate, the fundido came in a fairly large bowl. There wasn't much to complain about, other than the timing. The white cheese dip was warm and tasty. The chorizo added a nice bit of greasy spice, and the tomatoes and red onions helped to cut some of the richness. A layer of broiled cheese sat atop the bowl. It tasted fine; we were just too far along in our meal to really enjoy this appetizer.

The Pastor Fajitas ($13) looked more like carnitas. The more-than-adequate portion of shredded pork was juicy but bland, except for a hint of fruit juice. It was served with store-bought flour tortillas, grilled peppers and onions (which were perfectly fine), black beans and rice. The black beans were standard: seasoned nicely but nothing special. The side of rice tasted mostly of butter, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The Carne Al Orno Enchiladas ($12) were substantial and flavorful. The enchilada sauce was the highlight of the dish. The red sauce tasted of tomatoes and chipotle peppers with spices, maybe even a hint of cinnamon. The meat was a little greasy but very tender, and the portion was huge. The refried beans had a nice smoky bacon flavor but were very salty. This dish came with a slightly different variety of rice, which, again, tasted mostly of butter.

Agave Grill has some kinks to work out in the kitchen and with staffing in order for it to stand out. Service was friendly; management was apologetic. Great food could have made the difference in our experience. It's just not there yet.

Agave Grill
17324 Interstate 30

Quick bite
But Agave's menu features a wide variety of options including street tacos and even a Cheese-Dip Burger, which we weren't brave enough to go for. If it's shots you're looking for, the tequila menu is pretty extensive.

11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday. Kitchen closes at 10 p.m.

Other info
Full bar, credit cards accepted.

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