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Restaurant review: Sandy’s El Agave rewards adventurous diners

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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) El Agave's "Molcajete for Two," served in a traditional Mexican stone bowl sizzling with chicken, steak, shrimp, pork, green onions, jalapenos with plates of rice and beans.

By Stuart Melling

Special to The Tribune

First published Feb 26 2013 12:01PM
Updated Mar 1, 2013 10:49AM

Sandy • What does Sandy have in common with the cities of Wenatchee and Ephrata, Wash.? They’re all locations of an El Agave. The Utah location is the latest iteration of the Garcia family’s familiar take on Mexican dining.

The exterior of the restaurant, located in a strip mall, doesn’t set the imagination racing, but inside it’s a clean, tidy space and surprisingly spacious. The out-of-state restaurateurs have invested time and energy in the decor. The room is adorned with terra cotta reds, daffodil yellows and thematically appropriate decorative tiling. The star of the whole ensemble is the whimsically carved booths and chairs, some bearing the restaurant’s moniker.

Despite the color and detail, the restaurant lacked energy and buzz across my visits, in part because by high ceilings, lighting and a relative lack of patrons. The restaurant does have a full bar menu replete with margaritas and domestic and imported beers — so there’s plenty of festive potential on tap for those who might partake.

The menu at El Agave is remarkably large — both figuratively and literally — and its dimensions are such that you might find yourself jostling with your dining companions for space at the table while trying to decide on what to order.

Indecisive diners will finds refuge in the combination section, which reads like a typical Mexican restaurant menu.

Choose from a tostada, enchilada, taco, chimichanga, relleno, flauta, tamal, burrito and chalupa — all coming with a ho hum side of beans and rice ($7.50 through $12.50). I sampled my way through several plates of differing items, none particularly out of the ordinary and all hovering in the mediocre to decent spectrum.  

At El Agave, fortune favors those who are willing to investigate the menu deeper. Among the more than 80 items, mushrooms quirkily appear all over the photo-laden menu; everything from an appetizer of mushrooms in garlic butter ($5-$7) to entrees like the Camarones A La Diabla (shrimp and mushrooms in spicy red sauce $13.75).   

A seafood chimichanga ($12.00) stuffed with shrimp, crab and scallops in cream sauce was my first foray into the more unique items.

It was slightly more interesting than the tostadas, enchiladas and the rest. It was completely eclipsed by the mole poblano ($13.50), a generous serving of pounded thin chicken breasts, which came slathered in thick, spicy, dark mole sauce, finished with sesame seeds.  

The most eyebrow-raising item was the molcajete ($30).

Pronounced mohl-kah-heh-teh, the dish is served for two people and is named after the stone bowl (used as a traditional grinding mortar) in which the lavish dish is served. Inside the piping hot vessel is a layer of cheese and a mild chipotle-tomato sauce finished with a bounty of meats, such as sliced chicken breast, skirt steak, pork, fresh shrimp and bacon-wrapped shrimp.

Throw in two plates of rice and beans and a choice of flour or corn tortillas and you have a dish that catches other diners’ eyes as it winds its way to your table, sizzling and bubbling. The molcajete wasn’t without flaws, as some of the meat was less than exemplary, but there’s no denying the dish’s appeal as a refreshing change of pace.

Portion sizes at El Agave are large, as at other Mexican restaurants, and most entrees are easily big enough for dinner one night and lunch the following day. Indeed, on my first visit, when our table was delivered its meals on oversized platters, it took us sometime before we realized this was par for the course.  

It would be difficult to fault the restaurant from a value perspective.

If you have enough room for desert, skip the lackluster fried ice cream ($4), and instead order raspberry churros ($4.50). The four churros, stuffed with a raspberry filling and finished with a little cream, were reminiscent of freshly fried donuts.

Time will tell if Sandy diners will take to El Agave (or Orem where the restaurant is also expanding), as their counterparts have in Washington state over the past 20 years.

With such generous portions and a menu featuring something for everyone, there’s a chance El Agave could become a staple here, too.

Tribune restaurant reviewer Stuart Melling blogs at gastronomicslc.com. Send comments to food@sltrib.com.

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