There is a quaint yellow house on Kansas Avenue that offers a slice of life from a far-off place. Its name is Agave and it offers a taste of Jalisco cuisine, a regional subset of Mexican cuisine.
From the outside the restaurant looks small, but inside, it is appointed tastefully. While the cuisine hails from Mexico, the decorations are bright, colorful and reminiscent of many a Paris cafe.
The walls are bright yellow and the tables black. Each table is adorned simply with a napkin folded in the shape of a fan and a fork awaiting its diner. The black tables and plain white dishes are the perfect foil for dishes that come out as artfully plated. Works of art that are as delicious as they look.
The name, Agave, was selected because Jalisco is well-known for its tequila, and the agave cactus is used in its manufacture.
The menu at Agave does include cactus, and many of the dishes with cactus in them are tagged with Agave, but it is a different kind of cactus than that used to make tequila. The Agave designation identifies specialties of the restaurant.
The owner of the restaurant is Mercedes Hernandez, originally from El Salvador, and the cook is Luis Ibarra, her son-in-law.
Hernandez started out with a clothing store at the location, but she had once owned a restaurant in El Salvador, and had become well-known among friends for tasty pupusas. You can order pupusas at the restaurant, though they aren't on the menu.
"I like cooking, I like getting to know new people, and people like my food," Hernandez said.
Ibarra and Hernandez both came to America looking for a better future. Hernandez had family in Garden City working for the meat packing plants in the area. Ibarra had been in Kansas City working as a cook for a restaurant.
"My brother worked for a restaurant and helped me get a job there," he explained with the help of his sister-in-law, Jaeysi Rodriguez, who acted as an interpreter for him and Hernandez.
Ibarra started as a dishwasher, but his brother was already working in the kitchen and showed him how to make everything. As his cooking skills grew, he began experimenting, making up some of his own dishes, drawing on the recipes he'd grown up with.
Jalisco cuisine isn't too heavy on spices, he explained.The flavors of individual ingredients are more important. The dishes at his restaurant are patterned after homestyle dishes a family might share, but kicked up a notch for restaurant fare.
"I have tasted his shrimp, his chicken — I love his shrimp alfredo and the camarones al mojo de ajo," Hernandez said. These are both items on the menu.
Eventually a light bulb went on in Hernandez' mind. Her son-in-law was such a good cook, and she preferred the atmosphere of a restaurant. They should start one together.
The new restaurant has been open now about three months and is already steadily growing its clientele. The menu features many items you'd expect of fine Mexican cuisine, and a few surprises. Cactus, for example.
Ibarra said the menu items have been inspired by family recipes, passed down from his mother, father, aunts and grandmothers, as well as American dishes he has liked but given a Mexican twist.
Shrimp alfredo, for example, was dreamed up after he experienced a similar dish at Olive Garden. "That dish uses cheese and wine like the Olive Garden dish," Ibarra explained, "but I've added my own seasonings so the flavor is not the same."