Location: 152 E. Bridge St., The Waterfront, Homestead. 412-461-5000
Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat. noon-10 p.m.; Sun. noon-9 p.m.
Prices: Starters: $4-10; Entrees: $9-17
Atmosphere: Bright and busy yet relaxed
Liquor: Full bar
There was a time a decade or so ago, when dining at a Mexican restaurant in this area generally meant ground-beef tacos and blender margaritas, served under a décor of colorful souvenir serapes.
Don't get us wrong; Jason had a hearty appetite for such thoroughly Americanized Mexican cuisine in his college days. But as Pittsburgh has developed a robust culture of authentically prepared Mexican dishes, the allure of food-service tortillas, shredded iceberg lettuce and melted Monterey Jack has mostly faded.
So it was with some curiosity that we approached Gran Agave, a new restaurant in The Waterfront. The restaurant, in the walkable "village" portion of the former mill-cum-mall, has been decorated with the usual array of painted ceramics and rustic stucco. But the big windows let in plenty of spring evening light, the atmosphere was relaxed, and the service was professional and pleasant.
Over margaritas and complimentary chips and salsa, we set about perusing Gran Agave's lengthy menu. Most of it was given over to familiar Mexican restaurant favorites -- tacos, burritos, enchiladas -- offered in various combinations. But we sussed out a few dishes that promised a bit more than Mexican-American by the book. Angelique spotted a note declaring the kitchen's freedom from frozen and canned ingredients, while our server confirmed our suspicion that the thin, crisp and warm chips were made in-house.
To those accustomed to white-tablecloth dining, Gran Agave's shrimp cocktail -- poached shrimp immersed in a ketchup-based sauce and served with Ritz crackers -- would seem flagrantly inauthentic, but in fact this preparation is a venerable Mexican remake of the American fine-dining classic. The shrimp were good -- big enough to be meaty, not so big as to be cumbersome -- with their tails already removed, a gesture that Angelique appreciated. Additionally, there seemed to be an entire perfectly ripe avocado diced into the sauce. Our only quibble was that we would have preferred the sauce chilled instead of at room temperature.
Choriqueso is Gran Agave's take on queso fundido, melted cheese over spicy crumbled chorizo sausage. The white cheese was extraordinarily creamy, the sausage was a bit greasy, and any salt in addition to that already in the ingredients was utterly unnecessary. But we kept putting our chips back in for more: It was decadently delicious in the way that only a sworn enemy of arteries can be.
Steak tampiqueno featured a thin slice of ribeye, well seared, with two chicken enchiladas in mole sauce. It's hard to go wrong with flavorful ribeye, even cooked as well done as this steak was, and inside the enchiladas, the poached chicken and peppers were moist and tender. But the mole sauce lacked the smoky intensity that makes it one of the prizes of Mexican cuisine.
However, carne asada with salsa verde showed the kitchen's true prowess. Bite-size cubes of pork were lusciously tender and robustly flavorful in a stew of savory, spicy tomatillo sauce. Angelique usually shrugs her shoulders at pork, but this dish won her over.
Last came a true home-style dish, chilaquiles, the Mexican answer to matzoh brei or tuna-noodle casserole -- in other words, comfort food. Here's the universal recipe: Combine leftover starch (in this case, tortilla chips), meat (chicken) and sauce (red salsa and cheese), and bake until the flavors meld into a delicious, gooey mess. A humble home-kitchen dish, chilaquiles does not feature on a lot of Mexican restaurant menus. But it's a combination of flavors that can't be beat, and in Gran Agave's version, the contrast between the softened chips deep in the sauce with crisp ones that peeked out was a real pleasure.
Gran Agave hasn't changed the popular formula: It still offers mostly unthreatening, assimilated Mexican-American food in a fun, friendly environment. But the menu also includes a deep streak of Mexico itself, offering a glimpse of that country's authentic culinary greatness.