About Agave Azul Mexican Restaurant
Cozy side street eatery finds following
Small-scale works wonders for Agave Azul
BY SHANNON WELLS
Fabian Santana has operated two Mexican-themed restaurants in the Portland area for 10 years.
When he decided to open a third, Agave Azul, in Gresham, he knew one thing had to be different: He and his partner would own the building that housed the business.
“I had in mind I would buy the property and not pay rent,” says Santana.
With childhood friend Juan Nuno, Santana opened Agave Azul at 155 S.E. Vista Ave., off Powell Boulevard, in August 2009.
The pair took nearly two years to convert the charming, deceptively small-looking house – the former home of Rose’s Tea Room – into a fetching Mexican cantina with separate dining and bar areas.
Hardwood floors and natural-wood tables are surrounded by eye-pleasing touches such as stained-glass panels, striking paintings of Mexican landscapes and an inviting bar lined in adobe tile and brick arches.
And then there’s the food.
Appetizers, prices average around $5, include white fish tacos, shredded chicken in broth, Caesar salad and sautéed shrimp and mushrooms in garlic. Entrée plates, most of which are $10.95, feature specialties such as chile rellenos in a tomato chipotle sauce, lime-marinated steak with grilled onions, camarones (prawns) with mushrooms and onions or wrapped in bacon.
The lunch menu includes traditional favorites of burritos stuffed with chicken, beef or vegetables, enchiladas and the Agave Azul Quesadilla cooked with tomatoes, onions, white cheese and avacado. Lunch prices range from $2.95 for tacos to $7.95 for Enchaladas Rojas with chicken or beef.
Despite an economy that’s swallowed a number of well-established East County eateries, Santana exudes confidence that his latest venture will go the distance that his two Tapatio restaurants, in Aloha and at Cherry Park Plaza in Troutdale, have for a decade.
So far, he’s encouraged by the steady flow of customers to the just-off-the-beaten-path oasis.
“You should see this place Friday night,” he says on a Monday morning just before lunch. “It’s full. We’re doing well.”
The restaurant’s hard-to-find novelty spreads largely through word of mouth.
“Being off the main street is a challenge that works in our favor,” Santana says. “People like it, and they come back when they know it’s (just off) a busy street. Most everybody who comes for the first time recommends it to somebody else.”
Santana and Nuno, who works at a medical company, have assembled a family-based team of about seven to run the place. From cooking to dishwashing to serving, Nuno’s wife, Aurora, does a lot to keep things humming, but Santana and Nuno don’t hesitate to help out on the floor or in the kitchen when the need arises.
Childhood friends in Jalisco, Mexico, Santana and Nuno took separate paths for 20 years before Santana’s chance meeting with Nuno’s brothers brought the chums together again.
“We were good friends in Mexico,” Santana says. “I didn’t know he was here.”
Santana’s brother, Luis “Wicho” Aguilar, serves as head chef. Santana praises Aguilar’s culinary acumen by drawing attention to the cook’s bulky stature.
“He’s a great chef,” Santana says with a smile. “They say don’t trust a skinny chef.”
Santana’s business philosophy is relatively simple: Keep overhead expenses low, own your building, if possible, and don’t hire a big bunch of employees in anticipation of a busy night that may not happen.
“I feel those big restaurants are really risky,” he says. “I keep three people in the kitchen. No matter how busy it gets, they can handle it.
“A smaller space and smaller staff – that’s a formula that works.”