The hottest Latino song of the summer greeted us with a thumping bass line as we pulled open the door to Agave Roja restaurant in Corolla. Despacito was the first of many high energy musical numbers we heard as gal-pal Laurie and I enjoyed a recent lunch at the hip Mexican eatery in Monterey Plaza.
Known for tequila parings with every dish, the lunchtime vibe is even lively. Because it was sunny and crowds were sparse, we were quickly shown to a spacious booth and our server, Patrick, charmingly shared recommendations from the abbreviated menu; the dinner menu showcases many more dishes he told us, alongside owner recommended, tequila notes.
Based on Patrick’s suggestion, we started with the fresh guacamole that he shared was made daily. Served with chips and a thin, mild salsa, the avocado dip was light and refreshing. Served with just a sprig of cilantro and a lime, the chunky dip was simple and tasty.
We decided to sample a few dishes and the pork tacos, listed as Sweet and Sour Pork, caught my eye. The tacos featured slow roasted and pulled pork topped with slightly sweet and spicy pineapple salsa, double wrapped in soft, corn tortillas and topped with fresh cilantro.
A taste bud dancing combination of flavors, the only way it could have been better would have been if the tortillas were homemade.
We ordered the Maiz Mexicano, too, described as Mexican street corn. Two half cobs arrived slathered in lime, chipotle aioli and grated cotija. Messy as expected, the corn was hot of the grill and dripping with toppings.
Laurie and I both spotted the Ensalada Con Melón Y Chile on the menu, a chilled summer melon salad, and we knew we wanted to order it. A bowl of fresh greens arrived, topped with balls of watermelon, cantaloupe and a melon that Patrick described as a lemon melon. The salad was also dotted with mint, cilantro, pepitas, basil, parsley, cucumber, jicama, lime oil, cumin and cider vinegar, jalapenos and queso fresco. We added grilled shrimp and were both glad that we did. The hot shrimp on the cold salad was a true summertime treat. Each bite was different as the heat of the peppers was soothed by the watery melons and then zipped back up with the bits of basil and mint.
For our final savory selection, we decided on the vegetable enchiladas. Two corn tortillas were generously filled with spinach, zucchini, mushrooms and rajas (roasted poblano peppers, cut in strips) and then baked with ranchero sauce and cheese.
As usual, we had more food than we could eat, but decided to share dessert anyway. Both of us had our eyes on the Tres Leches cake since reading the menu. The traditional three milk cake was served in a big bowl topped with fresh whipped cream and berries. Absolutely soaked, the spongey cake left Laurie swooning. The addition of dark rum to the dessert was a surprise to me, it was not listed on the menu as their twist on a classic, and one spoonful was all this non-drinker was able to enjoy. I will definitely ask the next time I visit, the other desserts sounded great, too.
Big Latino flavors, seasonal ingredients and clever cocktails are surely the reason Agave Roja is crowded at dinnertime. Arrive early, enjoy slowly, despacito, like the song suggests.
Amy Gaw is a food entrepreneur who has eaten, cooked and written about food on the Outer Banks and surrounding areas for more than three decades. A clean food advocate with a focus on local seafood, Gaw is also a salt maker and the founder of Outer Banks SeaSalt.