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Tres Agaves Kitchen and Tequila Lounge

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After three years of planning, many trips to Tequila (a city in the Mexican state of Jalisco), and big-name partnerships with Julio Bermejo of Tommy's on Geary, rocker Sammy Hagar, and Executive Chef Joseph Manzare, concept designer Eric Rubin has finally opened Tres Agaves. From our visits, it would appear that hordes of San Franciscans are pouring in to check out this newcomer to the SBC Park area.

Grabbing inspiration from the town of Tequila in Mexico's Central Highlands, Tres Agaves delivers a feast for the eyes as well as the belly. Interior designer Jim Zack (Bacar, Zuppa, and Globe) fashioned the décor to showcase a festive Mexican plaza by bringing a typical plaza's outdoor elements inside.

A gigantic porch lamp hangs in the main dining room, lanterns above the bar resemble lights over late-night taco stands in Mexico, and oversized doors call to mind the entryways to wealthy haciendas -- all fitting in seamlessly with the high-ceilings and exposed-brick interior. At the entrance is another notable detail: a rock-wall sculpture that looks like stones thrown into a cage. It's striking and serves to separate the dining room from the front door.

Manzare, who continues to serve as Executive Chef at Globe and Zuppa, showcases a Jaliscan-inspired menu, a welcome change from San Francisco's ubiquitous Mex-Tex, Cal-fusion, and small plate trends. Sharing seems to be the way to go, either by dining family style on main courses, or by sharing a variety of appetizers and side dishes.

Nobody should come here without ordering the guacamole ($8). Although it's overpriced and not served tableside as advertised on the website, it's some of the best guac I've had. There are generous chunks of perfectly ripened, fresh avocado, and no raw onion aftertaste. The housemade salsa and pico de gallo, chock-full of refreshing cucumber chunks, made it hard not to fill up before dinner.

Other notable starters include the aguachile de camarones ($8), which differs from ceviche in that it doesn't marinate. The chef prepares it to order, so that the raw shrimp is firm, yet tender, and a bit sweet; plus, the avocado, cucumber, and tomato add a smooth, crisp taste.

Cheese lovers will appreciate the masa cakes filled with goat's milk ricotta ($8). However one disappointing appetizer was the coctel de pulpo ($5), which came cooked in a spicy tomato broth. The spiciness was right on, but the broth was too salty to enjoy.

On another visit, we ordered the guacamole and two entrées, not fully realizing how generous the portions are. With every main plate, you'll also get ensalada de repollo (cabbage salad with mango and Serrano chile), frijoles refritos con chorizo (refried beans with Mexican sausage), frijoles negros (black beans), arroz verde (rice with roasted poblano chiles), and homemade corn tortillas.

In addition to the sides that come with main plates, they have "otros" like grilled corn with chile, butter, and lime. The charring and caramelization make it a must-try, even though $4 is steep for a corn on the cob.

First, I ordered the shrimp cooked in a garlic sauce with chile and parsley salsa ($17) but it was sold out. Next I ordered the grilled grouper ($16). Although line-caught grouper was on the menu, they were serving ahi the night I went. Unfortunately, the mesquite-grilled ahi ($17) and the accompanying roasted chiles and stewed tomatoes didn't seem to complement each other. I'd like to try this again with a white fish, like the escolar they're serving now.

My hands-down favorite plate is the spit-roasted, half-chicken ($14). It's tender, succulent, and smoky, with a hint of lemon. Beware of the chiles though; my friend took a bite of the chile and was blown away by the spiciness. Which leads to a piece of advice: when you eat spicy food, water doesn't work, but tequila does.

Since this is a tequila lounge after all, the selection of 100 tequilas is more than adequate for liquor geeks and social drinkers alike. Don't expect to be doing shots at the bar though, because this tequila is meant for sipping -- as is evidenced by the ISO (International Spirits Organization) tasting glasses in lieu of shot glasses.

In addition to the list of 100% agave tequilas, from the unaged blanco to the oaky, aged añejo, there are tequilas from the Highlands and the Lowlands regions. The former is fruity and light, while the latter is more robust and herbaceous. Tres Agaves uses agave nectar instead of simple syrup in its potent margaritas to balance the acidity of the lime juice. Tequila flights and cocktails are also poured, in addition to various beers and wines.

If you can save room for dessert, which I couldn't manage to do in three visits, the selection is tempting. Two noteworthy sweets are the chocolate cake, which is a blend of Mexican cocoa and chile powder, and flan with homemade wedding cookies.

For a well-priced, high-end Mexican meal and a wide selection of tequilas, Tres Agaves is a sure bet. But try to plan your visit around the crowds if that's possible. And remember to order family-style and share, share, share.

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