Salsa & Agave Mexican Grill slingshots you south

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Mysteries that keep me awake at night include why authentic Mexican food was once so hard to find in Vancouver. Hands up, those who used to speed across the border to Dos Padres in Bellingham, or who made the trip to North Vancouver to sit down at El Norte, or—long before Gastown was the “it” eating area—hunkered down with a triple margarita at Hombres. Up until a few years ago, Mexican mostly meant the Tex-Mex horrors of savage yellow, preformed taco shells that splintered at a touch, and gloppy “combination plates”.

Now—evidence of this city’s changing population—genuine Mexican cooking is out there, sometimes in unexpected places. The great walls of glass egg cartons along Pacific Boulevard are a surprising location for a homey little Mexican restaurant, but there it is: Salsa & Agave Mexican Grill, with its ochre-and-red décor, hanging lanterns, and maybe a dozen seats, plus a couple of tables on the south-facing sidewalk.

You know you’re on to a good thing when little molcajetes of salsa and tricoloured chips arrive at the table almost before you’ve sat down. This salsa isn’t the bright red, chunky variety you buy in jars; it’s more greenish red, and deeper and more complex in taste.

Salsa & Agave is owned by Maria Rodriguez and Elizabeth Hernandez, who cook, and Hernandez’s husband, Juan Contreras, who manages. Serving staff aren’t related, but the vibe here is definitely family. “We try to make the food as authentic as we can,” says Contreras in a phone interview. Even the big flour tortilla loaded with spicy pork and melted cheese called a gringa (which sounds like a reference to the tourist trade), he says, is what you might devour in Mexico at the end of a long night.

Sopes are open-faced sandwiches built on handmade corn tortillas about the circumference of a large coffee mug, and are sturdy enough to support all the toppings. Pastor (pork in a spicy red sauce), crumbled chorizo, and gently seasoned chicken chunks, are good picks for the filling, the meat almost totally covered with shredded iceberg lettuce, tomato, and cheese.

Shopping in Yaletown or ambling around False Creek can cause you to work up an appetite. Earmark Salsa & Agave for lunch, especially on weekends, when Rodriguez and Hernandez make menudo or—tripe soup not being everyone’s fave—big bowls of pozole. The version served here starts with chicken broth, but while it’s rust red with spices, the heat comes at you stealthily.

Floating around are chunked pork or chicken, and the chickpea-resembling, lime-treated corn kernels that give the dish its name. A bowl of lime wedges, shredded lettuce, and crisped corn tortillas lets you play around with sharpness and texture.

This is food from Querétaro in central Mexico, so you won’t get fish tacos but more rib-sticking fare. The size of small clutch purses, burritos can hold carne asada with beans—a little chewy and a lot tasty, especially when you zap it with pico de gallo or a homemade guacamole, whose flavours slingshot you back to a Mexican side street, headlights diffused by the dust, your shoulders burned from the sun.

Rolled tacos are pan-fried to crispness and wrapped around chunks of chicken, the grilled steak that is carne asada, or potato, with lettuce, tomato, and crumbled cheese on the side.

“The kitchen is kind of small for the menu,” says Contreras. “They’re doing magic.” A recent edit did away with a lamb option for tacos and sopas, as well as those addictive Mexican ridged donuts called churros. An alternative sugar fix is the tres leches cake, the three milks being regular, evaporated, and sweetened condensed. Probably not for the lactose-intolerant.

Neon-vested work people and Central American students flock here weekdays, hungry from SkyTrain station–building or looking for a taste of home. Business is brisk but so is turnover, so you rarely have to wait more than a few minutes.

As for drinks, try Mexican fruit juices or, even better, horchata, made in-house from rice, cinnamon, and sugar, the only soft drink I know that cools you down and warms you up simultaneously.

This is a budget find. Figure anywhere from $2 for a single taco to $12 or $13 for full-meal deals like carne asada or mole poblano con pollo. There’s no liquor licence, but you can always phone ahead for takeout and do tequila shots or cold Dos Equis at home.

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