From Mezcal to Mole, Agave Uptown is an Oaxacan Mecca
May 30, 2018 11:19AM ● Published by Fran Miller
BY FRAN ENDICOTT MILLER
It’s a stretch to claim that an urban restaurant can fully replicate the vibe, the tenor, and the flavors of the faraway region that serves as its muse, but Oaxacan-inspired Agave Uptown seems to come close, if not fully achieve the goal. The walls of the popular Oakland eatery are adorned with a number of coa de jima, the tool used to harvest its namesake, and a large, vibrant mural depicts the agave harvest in action. Traditional Oaxacan textiles hang on another wall, and every glass, plate, and serving tray is organically and authentically Oaxacan, as is the food. Chef/owner Octavio Diaz’s attention to detail is meticulous – from the traditional gourd cup in which he offers a shot of mezcal, to his 20-ingredient mole sauce that enhances each dish.
The mole sauce, in truth, is made by Diaz’s beloved mother, and its popularity has prompted the duo to sell it within the restaurant as a take-home item. Made in a small kitchen in Healdsburg (Diaz’s home town) and imported to Oakland, a jar of the rich and smoky sauce is alone worth the easy drive through the tunnel to Franklin St. (street parking was plentiful, fyi). But Agave Uptown’s mole is best enjoyed in-house, poured over a giant, freshly grilled scallop, or dotting a cheese-stuffed poblano pepper.
Diaz’s menu changes seasonally, and he offers daily specials based on ingredients sourced each morning. His dishes are fresh, colorful, and as delicious as they are Insta-worthy. Start with an Oaxacan Cheese Empanada stuffed with seasonal mushrooms and queso. Or try the Ceviche with fish or shrimp, lime, cilantro and chunks of avocado. The Octavio Caesar is a thing of beauty with organic romaine hearts, pumpkin seeds, avocado, and heirloom tomatoes tossed in a chapulin Caesar dressing and enhanced with your choice of organic chicken, chorizo tasajo, or wild prawns. (On our visit, one of the daily specials included this salad with grilled Atlantic salmon.) House specialties include slow cooked pork Carnitas, Tlayuda – an Oaxacan pizza with choice of chorizo, steak, chicken, or vegetables, Wild Mushroom Tacos, and Enmoladas – rocky braised chicken with queso fresco, rice, black beans, and mole. And finally, don’t leave without a taste of the ethereal rose petal ice cream with its pure essence of supple red roses. If floral is not your favorite flavor, try the ultra-creamy tequila ice cream.
The full bar highlights specialty cocktails that are mezcal focused, such as the Agave Signature Sour with mezcal, prickly pear spirit, lime, and egg whites, or the Pasion Silvestre with Luna mezcal, mandarin and lavender syrup, passion fruit, lemon, and tonic. Draft and bottle beers include local and imported labels, and a small selection of wines is offered. But here, mezcal and tequila reign supreme; nearly 30 tequilas and nearly 50 mezcals are featured on the cocktail menu.
Chef Diaz grew up in a large family for whom food was a focal point. At age 13, his parents sent him to live with his uncle in Rohnert Park; he subsequently received a scholarship to attend Santa Rosa Junior College where he graduated with a degree in hotel and restaurant management. Inspired by his strong Oaxacan ties, his desire to bring the flavors of his homeland to the Bay Area led to his 2010 opening of popular Agave Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar in Healdsburg, which in turn inspired his opening of Agave Uptown, housed on the ground floor of the recently opened Kapor Center for Social Impact. The 4,000 square foot space curves between Franklin and Broadway and features an open kitchen and a newly opened front patio that allows for al fresco dining. “My goal is that Agave Uptown be an integral part of this vibrant and diverse community, just as Agave has found its home in Healdsburg,” says Diaz, who, based on the number of waves and smiles he grants to passersby, seems to be fulfilling his objective.
Agave Uptown: 2135 Franklin Street, Oakland.
Hours: Monday through Thursday from 11am to 9pm. Friday 11am to 10pm. Saturday 3pm to 10pm. Sunday 3pm to 8pm. Reservations: OpenTable.com.