ST. PETE BEACH
Some say it was named after a woman in Mexico City in the 1930s; others claim it was inspired by a senorita in Acapulco in the '50s. Whoever she is, we salute the fair Margarita who provided the unknown mixologist with his muse. Personal preference doesn't count for much when you're a restaurant reviewer, but I have an abiding passion for the drink that starts with tequila and usually ends with lime.
It should come as no surprise that Agave has a good one. The blue agave, after all, is the basis for this most famous elixir from Jalisco. A fungus has made short work of much of the blue agave crop in Mexico in recent years, but you'd never know it speed-reading through Agave's list of plata, reposado and anejo tequilas: 90 and counting.
Platas are usually clear and un-aged, reposados have a little wood-barrel aging to them, and anejos, often the most expensive and complex, see at least a year in smallish barrels. I like the smooth caramel-and-cognac flavor of Herradura anejo ($11), or the oaky butterscotch of one of Don Julio's anejos ($12 to $80 per glass).
These are serious beverages, not throw-your-head-back-and-howl-at-the-moon quaffs. That's not to say Agave owners Nina and Richard Madison are fussy folks. This tiny 2-year-old restaurant (it stood a block away for three years before that) is about as warm and fun as it gets in St. Pete Beach. Grab a seat at the bar, the 'rita shaker banging out a rhythm while you wait for a table to come open. A basket of chips gets a trio of sauces — hot, hotter, hottest — and a bigger cup of mild salsa cruda ($3). All sauces can be made docile when alternated with an order of tomato-studded guacamole ($4).
The menu ranges far afield, from straightforward Mexican staples (tacos, tostadas, enchiladas) to more sophisticated "new Mexican" fare culled from Nina's family recipes from the Laguna region. This means you'll find the likes of shredded pork in tomatillo sauce ($15), lively Baja-style fish tacos (4 for $8) and mole poblano ($15): As anyone from Oaxaca will tell you, "mole" really just means sauce, so it can be the traditional chocolatey-clovey brown sauce spiked with chile heat, or it can be, as at Agave, a more tomatoey red sauce that resembles a pico de gallo in heat and piquancy.
Every bit as refreshing as the house margarita (a good deal at $5), a key lime-intensive ceviche of "corvina" (as best as I can figure, any number of sea bass-like fish traditionally used for ceviche; $10) and a shrimp cocktail ($10) make great shared starters. Once the shrimp have been excavated from the tall glass, their just-sweet gazpacho bath is deliciously scoopable with tortilla chips. Then, to counteract all those fried chips, opt for a house salad ($5), zippy with thin-sliced radish and toasted pepitas.
The service staff seems to work tag-team in the small, cluttered (but cheery) dining room to get the job done. You may not be sure which pretty, brown-haired woman is yours, but they are all willing to grab you a beer or deliver your carnitas tacos ($8), the plush shreds of pork gussied up with ribbons of cabbage, onion, cilantro and a few wedges of lime, their base a two-ply of warm, housemade corn tortillas. You can't go wrong on the taco list, from Mexican-style barbecued brisket to skirt steak (all $8). But bigger appetites might opt for the nearly shoebox-sized burritos, our favorite a chicken in rich chipotle cream ($8), lightened a bit if you order it American style, which means with lettuce, tomato and onion.
Bearing in mind the approach of Cinco de Mayo, it might behoove diners to end a meal at Agave with some tequila-sipping calisthenics. No salt-licking and lime-sucking necessary. Just order a velvety flan ($4) or one of the two sugar-flecked, deep-fried-dough desserts (one cradling banana, the other cream cheese and raspberry paste, both $4) to counteract the warming, fiery liquor.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.