There are many reasons to welcome Blue Agave, the Mexican restaurant that opened just before Christmas Downtown on Butler Street, in the former Bayou.
One is the chic lounge upstairs in an area that exists on what is essentially a balcony over the ground-level dining room. With gorgeous white leather couches and furniture, it would be a great place to have margaritas on a Friday or Saturday night when it’s in use.
Jose Mata, the restaurant’s founder and general manager, said there’s dancing downstairs after dinner on weekend nights, and that the loft area upstairs may extend its hours eventually if there’s demand.
A second draw is Blue Agave’s incredible guacamole ($8), prepared tableside by the restaurant’s “guacamoliere,” who wheels over a cart, slices open two ripe avocados and mixes the other ingredients in a large stone molcajete.
We ordered the rostizado version with roasted poblano peppers, tomato, corn and cilantro. I got a little nervous seeing how much salt, garlic powder, onion and lime juice was going in, but I needn’t have worried. It came out masterfully. I just wished my dining partner hadn’t vetoed the jalapeños.
The guacamole takes its name, rostizado, from the roasted poblanos, which were chopped so fine it was hard to see or taste them. Still, they subtly enhanced it.
Mata said he’s starting to cut the peppers bigger and is training his staff to do the same.
The Mexican street corn ($5.50) was also excellent, but went overboard on the mayo, which made it extremely rich. The amount of each of the other ingredients — including chili powder, garlic, queso fresco and lime — was just right.
Another reason to visit Blue Agave is for the chiles rellenos ($12), which come two in an order. With the rice and beans, there was a huge amount of food. What really made the dish stand out was the dark, smoky sauce (with chipotle and guajillo chili peppers) on top of each poblano, plus a dab of guacamole. The chiles rellenos also benefited from plenty of cheese, a tasty breading, and small chunks of marinated pork throughout.
Sandra Alamilla Lopez, who owns the business with Carmen Munoz, said her mother, Beatriz Lopez Juarez, who taught her how to cook, makes the sauce.
The beans were liquidy but good with hot sauce, and the Mexican rice, enhanced by corn and carrots, had great flavor.
The tilapia agave ($14.50) had a nice, light touch, its two fish fillets covered with a cilantro sauce that tasted healthy. The only problem was that the shrimp listed on the menu were AWOL. The fish came with a mound of white rice and a variety of lightly-seasoned veggies.
When my friend noted the missing shrimp, our waiter cut the price of the dish in half, which we told him was unnecessary. It was a minor mistake and there was enough tilapia to justify the original price.
Chips and salsa were served immediately after we were seated, and while the salsa was pretty one-dimensional and held no interest, the homemade chips were outstanding, fresh and non-greasy. Blue Agave makes all its own tortillas, Mata said.
The main disappointment was my mojito, served in a pint glass with a tiny sprig of mint. It was on the specials board for $4.50 on this Sunday night, so I guess it was a case of “you get what you pay for.” I should have just ordered a margarita, which Lopez calls a specialty of Mata, her fiancé.
After all, the restaurant is named for the plant from which tequila is distilled.
Mata grew up in Oshkosh, and has lived in Wisconsin his whole life. But his family is from San Jose de la Paz in Jalisco, Mexico, a state famous for its tequila.
He pays tribute to his late father on the menu. Jose Mata Sr. owned a Mexican restaurant in Oshkosh called Durango’s.
Mata explains on the menu that his father always wanted to have a restaurant in Madison, a city he grew to love.
“Every day I come to work, I will come with a smile on my face, and love in my heart, knowing our dream has come true,” Mata writes.
At Blue Agave the love is palpable. You can taste it.