Mexican begat Mexican as Lana Restaurant on Daniel Island closed to be replaced with Agaves Cantina last fall.
Cuisine: Mexican, Tex-Mex
Representative Dish: Chilaquilies verdes or rojos; sopes; molcajete
Address: 885 Island Park Drive, Daniel Island
Bar: Full-service bar; Happy Hour daily
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; noon-9 p.m. Sunday. Lunch specials served 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Costs: Appetizers $4.35-$12.75; soups and salads $6.50-$9.99; snacks (sopes, tacos, tamales, tortas, burritos, quesadillas) $2.99-$11; platters $8.75-$23.50; specialties $8.75-$19.50; lunch menu, $5.75 value meal
Vegetarian Options: Yes
Wheelchair Accessible: Yes
Parking: Street side and rear parking lot
Other: Carryout, children's menu; specialty cocktail menu; Happy Hour 4-8 p.m. daily; outdoor patio
Local owner Armando Navarro had his work cut out for him transforming the awkward space of Lana into this azul-themed cantina featuring the common carta of Mexican cuisine with Tex-Mex and California favorites. The agave plant, whose juice yields tequila, is the brand icon of the restaurant and it appears as sculpture, lighting fixtures and on their collateral pieces.
Navarro has done a credible job bringing together a palette of earth tones that bring calm to the dining space while keeping the bar area energized and electrified with cobalt blue tile and edgy pendant lighting. Rough-hewn paneling displays a mural of an agave farmer at work and the star-shaped Moravian chandeliers repeat the spiked pattern of the agave plants above the bar.
Spared sombreros and pinatas, the walls bear primitive folk art prints that bring a colorful, child-like charm to the dining rooms. The Spanish colonial influence of Mexico is reflected in the tiled rustic tables and sturdy chairs that fill the H-shaped dining areas.
The prevailing mood at the restaurant favors families. But happy hour is well-received and the value-price lunch menu traffics well with the local workforce.
Agaves offers all the taqueria standards: single-handed tacos and two-fisted burritos; nachos and queso fundido; combination platters and house specialties along with quesadillas, enchiladas and fajitas. The menu offers five pages of choices. The culinary refrain of beans, rice, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and salsa should be culled in the interest of differentiation and simplicity.
We had hoped this new player in the Mexican restaurant landscape would leave the safety net of soupy beans and bland rice that buttress chalupas, tamales and tostados and embrace the expanse of regional Mexican cooking.
Tempt us with tortas ahogadas, the smothered "sandwich" of Jalisco; fill those poblanos with camarones (shrimp); and fire up the barbacao with birria (braised sheep, goat or beef). Pour some horchata and serve up comida tipica. All the while keep those staples that the gringoes have come to expect when dining Mexicana. But Agaves has not quite embraced a portfolio of regional dishes and that is our loss.
The complimentary corn chips are warm and crisp, deftly salted and served with a piquant salsa. The guacamole, though made in-house, needs lime and salt to brighten its flavors and give the alligator pear (aka avocado) its due.
The braised dishes demonstrate the kitchen's prowess and strength: chicken chilaquilies bury succulent poultry chunks strewn with peppers and onions in a balanced verdes (green) sauce. The rice is superfluous but the guacamole salad that accompanied this dish was a refreshing partner to the smothered tortillas and chicken.
Carnitas also felt the kitchen's love. Chunks of pork were tender morsels with the slim edges crisped by the rendered fat. Coddled in a sauce of chilies and tomatillos, this slow-cooked dish spoke to south of the border comfort food. The companion rice was foil to the dish's homespun elements. The choice of refried or black beans, not so much.
Chile verde with pork was equally flavorful and the kitchen also prepares a Colorado or red sauce version with "steak tips."
An order of enchiladas with mushrooms did not fare as well. Tepid cheese, flaccid mushrooms and no depth of flavor made for a lackluster dish.
The sopes, however, earn high marks. In this dish, hand-patted masa is shaped into a small disk, topped with refried beans and the trinity of lettuce, tomato and salsa. Choose from five meat toppings to complete the dish, add a Dos Equis, and enjoy a hoecake that took a Cancun vacation.
Sizzling fajitas platters resonated with the dinner crowd, as did the value-based combination platters served with rice and your choice between refried or black beans. The ground beef on a tostaguac - think tostado spread with guacamole - had an awkward flavor at best so you may want to stick with the shredded beef option.
The menu has many repetitive features and flavors. Both the guests and the kitchen would be well-served by editing. Lunch has its own dedicated menu and does not include the more interesting options prepared at dinner.
The sweet-natured servers struggled in describing the dishes and were not well-schooled on the ingredients or preparations. The long waits that accompanied Agaves' opening have been mitigated by time and experience. They still struggle with the mechanics of running a restaurant and the timing for the delivery of the dishes and the check. But the crowds still come. Friends, families and co-workers put the feliz in happy hour and Agaves satisfies our continuing appetite for Mexican cooking and its spawns, Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex.