Putting a Mexican Eatery to the Purist Test
Ed and Vini know everyone, and C.C. and I are happy to take their word for it. After all, they know our friends M.K. and Bobby, who know almost everyone, and they know our pal A.G., who knows absolutely everyone. C.C. and I know almost no one.
It is not that Ed and Vini know everyone that prompts us to invite them along to Blue Agave (1032 Light St.,  576-3938). Rather, it's that Ed, a colleague of C.C.'s, is something of a Mexican-food purist (actually, just short of a snob).
Don't ask for a frozen margarita at this Federal Hill restaurant. You'll incur the horror of the bartender, the disdain of the staff, and the wrath of the Aztec gods. Your only recourse would be a prayer to Santa Clara, patron saint of television viewing, whose votive candles grace each table. Go for an on-the-rocks margarita in some stunning shade--teal, perhaps, or tangerine, or vivid violet, like C.C.'s, made with prickly pear juice. Better yet, go my route and opt for a "flight" of tequilas--three half-ounce pours--and compare different producers and grades. With more than 75 tequilas available, you may find yourself, as I did, becoming more and more mellow as the evening progresses.
We soak up the drinks and the ambiance (wrought-iron chandeliers, carved wooden masks, Mexican music) while snacking on tortilla chips and a tasty trio of salsas: something smoky and red, something green and perky, and salsa fresca (a mix of fresh tomatoes, onions, coriander, and chili). Vini must have a chili relleno ($6.50) and a fine one she gets, a large and firm poblano fried in a whisper of crunchy coating, bursting with melted cheeses (queso fresco and smoked cheddar), roasted garlic, epazote (a pungent herb), and fresh corn. The mild heat is enhanced by the chili's perch atop a bed of roasted red and fresh salsas.
Ed is intrigued by one of the house specialties: griddled buttermilk corn cakes topped with chipotle-seared shrimp and more of the salsa fresca ($8.50). Beautiful presentation, wonderful taste. The cakes are slightly sweet and feather light. Topped with four juicy shrimp, the salsa, and a drizzle of sour cream, they take the appetizer prize.
I am less enthusiastic about my huitlacoche enchilada ($7.50). The enchilada stuffing of corn, button mushrooms, and huitlacoche (the fungus known to agriculturists as "corn smut") tastes a bit sweet and slightly pickled, but it's hard to tell amid all the salsas and sauces on the plate.
C.C. selects a mix-and-match taco platter (she takes fish, steak, and chicken) with refried beans and red chili rice ($12.50). The star is the fish, flavorful tilapia that fits perfectly with the tomatillo salsa and shredded cabbage. Less successful is the chicken, simmered in salsa for flavor but still a bit dry. Worst is the steak: The thin slices of rib-eye are shriveled and dry, chewy and pretty tasteless. The salsa fresca doesn't help; I doubt any salsa could. And what's with the rice and beans? The beans are just OK, and the rice is too soft and has a bitter, off-putting taste.
A recovery is effected by Vini's carnitas uruapan ($13), a dish I remember from a semester in Guanajuato in central Mexico. Big hunks of pork are roasted until they almost melt, then shreds of the juicy meat are stuffed into warm tortillas with salsa fresca. Divine. The pork is smoky and sweet and perfectly lean. Everybody samples some and Vini works hard, but we barely make a dent in the enormous serving.
Ed knows his moles, those fantastical dark sauces of chilies, herbs, seeds, and rich Mexican chocolate. He chooses game hen with mole negro ($16), an Oaxacan dish, accompanied by spaghetti squash and a potato/asadero cheese empanada. It's a heady mole, writing complex flavors on the blank slate of the grilled hen, but Ed finds its spice too low-key (although he loves the empanada).
The spice is also muted in my plantain-encrusted Chilean sea bass ($19.50), hailed as the chef's signature. Rightly so: It elicits oohs and aahs from around the table. A base of sautéed chard is covered with cilantro-heavy rice, which is topped with the 3-inch-thick bass filet, beautifully moist and flaky. Again, the rice is just OK, and the mango-habanero sauce has more fruit than force, but the black-bean salsa is good.
For dessert, we share a well-presented flan ($6), served on a plate decorated with raspberry and caramel squiggles, cinnamon, and powdered sugar. I'm not a flan fan, but Vini and C.C., who are, pronounce this a fine example, spongy and sweet. Ed and I are more enthusiastic about El Gordo ($6), an two-layer (mango and Mexican chocolate) ice cream cake on a graham cracker crust, topped with hot fudge and a slice of mango dipped in chocolate and frozen. Rich rich rich.
Oh, about Santa Clara: She spent most of her pious 60 years in an Italian convent. Her deathbed wish was to attend Mass, but intractable pain had left her immobile. It's said that in answer to her prayers, God caused a mini-Mass to materialize just above her bed. Others in the room watched it too. Her feast day is Aug. 11, deep in TV-rerun season.
Open 5-10 p.m Sunday and Monday, 5-11 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.