Las Vegas and Mexico meet in Hermosa

Agave Azul co-owner Rocio Sabra. Photo by JP Cordero

Agave Azul’s décor is flashy, but the food is less impressive

Agave Azul co-owner Rocio Sabra. Photo by JP Cordero

Everyone who drives down Hermosa Avenue after dark noticed the day they switched on the power at Agave Azul. In place of the simple white sign and dimly lit patio you saw when this was The Standing Room, the building blazed neon blue with purple highlights. If the intent was to let people know there was something new in town it was certainly a success.

Agave Azul opened in the waning days of pandemic restrictions, and their small patio was almost immediately mobbed. Once the interior seating was available that was mobbed too, by a party hearty crowd fueled by Instagram posts about the hip new place by the beach. The interior design was striking, the music loud, and the general environment different from every other place in the neighborhood. Multiple people who visited told me it reminded them of someplace else altogether – Las Vegas.

That’s not a bad thing, at least in theory, because lots of people go to Las Vegas repeatedly, and not just to visit the money they lost on their previous stay. Over-the-top decor and pulsing soundtracks are part of the charm, and restaurants from simple buffets to high style dinner houses thrive. Emulating that flash and boldness in the South Bay could be a winning strategy.

Unfortunately, the food at Agave Azul is timid compared to the décor, both in concept and execution. Regional Mexican preparations and creative cooking might as well not exist, and the menu is heavy on burritos, tacos, and simply grilled fish. Most of the menu might have been written in the 1980s. It’s an odd mismatch with the assertively contemporary visual style.

Meals start with chips and a salsa that was spicy but unexceptional – it had a slight citrus acidity balanced with chunks of tomato that were too large to easily eat with the thin chips. On one visit a small bowl of ceviche arrived with the salsa, which was a nice touch even though it was even harder to pick up big chunks of fish without utensils, so I requested some.

The “cosas finas” plate at Agave Azul. Photo by Richard Foss

The “cosas finas” plate, a sampler appetizer, was the first thing we ordered there, and we selected it a bit whimsically because in my young and penurious days we might have ordered this and many baskets of chips and called it a meal. It was the usual mix – a small quesadilla, some taquitos, grilled shrimp, fried cauliflower, buffalo wings, and fried plantains. It’s actually a test of a kitchen, because one that can make this many small portions and have them come out hot and fresh tasting is really on the ball. Unfortunately this one couldn’t. The wings and plantains were still warm, but most of the other items were cool, and the taquitos had been under a layer of salad and dressing for long enough that they had lost their crispness and were chewy.

While that appetizer platter was a dud, another starter that emphasizes variety was a hit. The empanada trio has three small fried turnovers stuffed with chicken, beef, and spinach with cheese. Though it takes time for the order to be made, it’s worth the wait. These empanadas are fried rather than baked and made with a flaky flour dough rather than one with cornmeal. Depending on where you are in Mexico, you might find them made either way. The beef is actually way more interesting than I had expected, because instead of just shredded protein the ground beef is made picadillo style, sauteed with olives, eggs, onion, and mild seasonings.

The empanada trio at Agave Azul. Photo by Richard Foss.

There is a pleasant mélange of flavors going on, and the chicken filling also had some depth to it. The spinach and cheese was simpler in concept, but had some clove and pepper in the background, and all three were worth having again.

Other items were hit and miss. A bowl of barramundi ceviche came close to perfection, an interesting mix of marinated raw fish with pomegranate, mango, Persian cucumbers, red onion, peppers, avocado, and lime. It was just a little out of balance thanks to an abundance of lime tartness, but the idea behind it was sound. The menu says this item was created by Hermosa’s Chief of Police Paul Lebaron, and if that officer gets tired of putting on the blue uniform, he may have a future in a white chef’s coat.

A cod burrito and the birria both used good quality ingredients but were unimpressive. The fish in the burrito was slightly dry, and the salsa verde that topped it was lackluster. It wasn’t bad, but there was no zestiness and depth — I could forget what it tasted like between bites. The birria was even more disappointing because it didn’t taste like birria at all. The traditional version is made with goat, lamb, or beef and features a smoky, vinegary heat and complex array of spices that include fresh and dried chillies, black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, and ginger. Many Americans do find the real thing a bit overpowering, and in restaurants outside Mexican neighborhoods they tend to back off on the spices a bit. They overshot here, because what arrived was a beef stew that, while it had some chili heat, didn’t have the herbal kick and chile depth that makes birria birria. If this had been on the menu as a Mexican beef stew I might have had a higher opinion of it, but seeing that name on the menu had raised my expectations.

A cod burrito at Agave Azul. Photo by Richard Foss.

One of the best items I had at Agave Azul was a daily special of lamb shanks that were served with all the materials to make tacos. I almost decided not to order this because it sounded like too much food, but there was just enough meat on the shank to stuff three tacos. That lamb was flavorful, robustly seasoned, falling-apart tender, and had much more character than the by-the-numbers items that dominate the menu.

Given the adult playground vibe here, it’s no surprise the bar has a respectable tequila and mixed drink selection. The pours are on the generous side and drinks are usually well-balanced, and the by-the-glass selection is unusually good for a Mexican restaurant.

I would be remiss if I finished this review without mentioning the defining feature of the interior – the volume. When they’re playing recorded music it’s loud, and when there’s a live show it’s intolerable. On my most recent visit I was sitting at an outside table when the band blasted out their first number, and the people at the next table who had been enjoying a conversation tracked down a server so they could get their food packed up. Based on the number of people I saw streaming out of the restaurant in the next few minutes, it was worse inside.

Agave Azul is very lively on weekends, and seems to have found a niche as a young crowd, party spot where you can get a decent meal. I expect they’ll do well during summer, but to thrive and maintain a local following in a neighborhood with several fine Mexican restaurants they’ll have to improve the consistency and creativity in the kitchen.

Agave Azul is at 1320 Hermosa Avenue in Hermosa Beach. Open Mon. — Thur. 1 p.m. – 11 p.m. Frid. and Sat. 11 a.m. – 1 a.m. Sun. 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. street parking or structure across the street. Full bar. Patio dining. Some vegetarian items. No reservations.(424) 247-7471. Agaveazulhb.com. ER

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