Cafe Reviews

Breaking up with Cien Agaves isn't so hard to do

It's not a big stretch to compare restaurants to relationships. Finding a great new place is like having a crush. You notice an intriguing stranger, flirt with the idea of stopping by, get seduced by the food, and end up craving more. You might keep it secret for a while, but sometimes the excitement's too much and you tell all of your friends about it. It could end up a brief obsession, an occasional fling, or a long-term commitment.

But then there are the downsides. Disappointment? Disillusion? Yep, it sounds like romance gone sour, except that when it comes to restaurants, people won't tolerate much bad behavior or give many second chances. One lame meal could warrant a sudden breakup.

All of this comes to mind when I recall my various impressions of Cien Agaves Tacos & Tequila, in Old Town Scottsdale. First time there, I thought it showed potential. It wasn't full-on love at first bite, but the food was decent and I liked the vibe. My second visit raised serious questions, though. If it weren't for professional reasons, I wouldn't have bothered to go back. And the third time, sadly, was definitely not a charm.

The concept's cool, I'll hand 'em that. Thirteen different tacos make up the bulk of the menu, along with a few apps, salads, and a handful of entrees. On the booze end of things, there's beer, wine, some specialty cocktails, and a nice selection of margaritas made with fresh lime juice. The Arizona Prickly Pear was a little sugary for my taste, but the Habanero-Lime margarita had an addicting heat, and the Partida margarita was deliciously smooth. True to the name, the bar also offers 100 different blue agave tequilas by the shot.

With sleek, colorful décor, clusters of sparkling punched-tin stars suspended from the ceiling, and abundant artwork (currently, the featured artist is El Moisés, whose cool canvases celebrate Mexican kitsch), the atmosphere is hip but not painfully trendy. Catch this place at happy hour, when the specials are a bargain, or on a night when there's live music, and it can be a vibrant scene.

That's all fine, but what got to me was the sketchiness of the service and food. Some of the dishes were tasty and some were just dreadful — basically, a total crapshoot. The wait between courses was inexcusably long at times, and the restaurant wasn't even full. I encountered a couple of friendly servers, but the last one who waited on my table was such a slacker that I noticed her hanging out in the back, checking her cell phone. After we'd flagged her down to order dessert, she hastily returned to throw some spoons on the table. She never once asked us how our meals were, and never thanked us.

Among the tacos, I enjoyed the plump shrimp tacos with spicy guajillo sauce, the moist grilled salmon, and the crispy tinga taco, with shredded chicken in a deep fried corn tortilla. The lobster taco, topped with a salsa of jicama, mango, pineapple and corn, was good the first time I ordered it, but the next time it was served cold. Basically the same thing happened when I ordered the carne asada taco — fine on one occasion, lukewarm on another. Considering that these tiny things cost $6 and $5, respectively, that's insane.

Meanwhile, the papas con queso taco was plenty hot, but there wasn't much flavor to it. My La Jolla fish taco contained an overdone piece of fried tilapia, while the carnitas taco was gamey and tough, not even close to the mouthwatering pork I'd hoped for. I gave the carnitas a second chance on another visit, and the dry bits of meat were totally inedible.

Wow, was there anything I liked? Well, I did scoop up a lot of the chunky guacamole. A salad of mixed greens, apples, walnuts, and cotija cheese was notably fresh, with a delicious prickly pear vinaigrette. And the lobster quesadilla, while it wasn't as impressive as the version at Padre's on Camelback, was pretty good. The fajitas weren't bad, and all the side dishes were solid, including grilled street corn with cotija and chili powder, black beans and rice, and thick, creamy guajillo mashed potatoes.

The queso fundido, though, was weird. Instead of a gooey fondue consistency, it was more like a soft, molten patty of Manchego cheese and chorizo. It was impossible to dip chips into it, so I had to go at it with a fork to heap it on a flour tortilla. The texture took me off guard.

I'm not sure what annoyed me more about the nachos — the fact that they took forever to arrive (and that we got our entrees moments later), or that they just weren't any good. The grilled chicken topping was only partially heated, and the stingy amount of cheese on it was melted to the point of dryness. I should've stuck with the chips and salsa.

The biggest shocker at Cien Agaves was the tomate chipotle chicken. It looked good, smelled good, and the fiery chipotle tomato sauce tasted good. But a slice through the thick breast revealed pink, glossy, completely raw meat. Thankfully, our waitress was as horrified as we were, and promptly notified the kitchen to make another. She took it off our bill and brought us a free flan — both nice gestures — but by the time the second chicken dish came out, everyone else at the table was finished eating.

Just to be fair, I ordered the chicken again on another visit, and was disappointed to see a tiny portion of meat slathered in too much sauce. This time, it was cooked through, but it simply wasn't succulent.

I truly liked the Kahlua flan, which had a dense consistency somewhere between custard and cheesecake. In fact, I tried it a second time, and enjoyed it just as much.

It should've been a fine end to a mediocre meal, kind of a consolation. But nope, I foolishly ordered the sopapillas, too. What did you expect? They tasted like stale toaster pastries.

Sorry, Cien Agaves, but I just can't see you anymore.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig