27741 Crown Valley Parkway
Mission Viejo, CA 92691
I was re-reading some of my old restaurant reviews of places we have visited at the Kaleidoscope in Mission Viejo. I always mention the shortcomings of this albatross of a shopping center in each of these reviews. I've decided for this review, I will reverse the trend and leave the poor Kalidescope alone, instead focusing on another new tenant setting up shop just outside of the Union Market. That new face on the upper level is one of our favorites, Sol Agave.
I started following Chef Manny Velasco on Instagram when my friend at work mentioned that he was his next door neighbor. Chef Manny got his culinary experience at Marie Calendar's, Savanah Chop House, Carmelita's, and Amoreila, which is an underrated Mexican restaurant in Costa Mesa that you should definitely try out.
Chef Manny and his business partner, Jesus Galvez started their dream of operating their own restaurant when they got in the food truck game in 2014. From there, they opened their first brick and mortar restaurant in San Juan Capistrano the next year. That's when we got on board with their modern take on Mexican cuisine. They then moved Sol Agave to a bigger location in the same shopping center, which allowed them to stretch their wings a bit.
Fast forward two years and they have expanded once again, opening a second Sol Agave location in what used to be Anchor Hitch, the critically well-received seafood restaurant, which was unfortunately not the right fit for this area of town. Chef Manny has always wanted to showcase fresh and organic ingredients in his cooking, which results in what he hopes is healthier and more enjoyable Mexcian food. The times we have eaten his food we definitely found this to be the case. We were hoping that trend would continue at this new Sol Agave location.
For this dinner, we met up with our good friend Tom and his decent wife Daniele. I'm always curious how these two will view a new restaurant they have never been to before. They both love trying new places, and I feel that our tastes are quite similar. We had made 7pm reservations on a recent Friday and arrived at a pretty full restaurant. I liked the vibe of the restaurant. It's a little cramped, as the tables are pretty close to each other, but the modern decor was very relaxing in this rather busy space.
The menu at this new Sol Agave is a little different from the San Juan menu. There's some overlap, but there appears to be a little more on this Mission Viejo menu with the addition of dishes from the Michoacan and Vallarta regions of Mexico. There's no fundido on the Mission Viejo menu, which is a shame as it's one of our favorites, but as you will see below, they are very accommodating about making it for us. The other big difference between the two menus is that at Mission Viejo there's a taqueria section which offers six ala carte taco options, one for $7 or 2 for $12. Most entrees hover around the twenty dollar mark. Let's see how everything shook out for us on this evening.
While we were waiting for Tom and Daniele, (always running late), we were started off with this better version of chips and salsa. I always enjoy when a restaurant steps up their salsa and chip game by adding something unexpected, like this bean dip. At Sol Agave they bring out what I'd call tostada chips, a slightly spicy salsa, cotija cheese, and bean dip. The best part of this is the bean dip, which has a great earthy and smooth flavor that becomes more and more addictive as you wait for your friends to arrive. The salsa and cotija were fine, but kind of got neglected at our table. The tostada chips were okay, but I would have preferred the much better traditional chips that they serve at their San Juan restaurant.
I knew it was going to be a long night of listening to Daniele's long-winded stories, many of which I already knew about thanks to her Facebook page, so drinks were definitely in order. I had the Small House Margarita ($9), while Tom had the way more photogenic Strawberry Jalapeno Margarita. My margarita was fine, made with Moestro tequila and an agave mix. Pretty average, but it definitely did the trick of dulling my senses when listening to Daniele. I was way more interested n Tom's cocktail which used the same kind of tequila as mine but added muddled strawberries, jalapeno, and a salted chili rim. Predictably this had hints of sweet and spice but in muted tones. It did not overwhelm which I was afraid it was going to do. A very even beverage and one I would get on my next visit.
Guacamole ($10) is always the right way to go when dining in a Mexican restaurant. At Sol Agave they offer a guacamole sampler, which gives you versions with carnitas, lobster, and their classic, which we will try on our next visit. This time we just got the classic version only, which was a good sized portion. The avocado mash is mixed simply with roasted Serrano peppers and garlic and is then topped with a sprinkle of cotija cheese and some pico. Very creamy, and the peppers gave it a little spark of heat. Good consistency to this as it had some nice sized chunk to it. Very fresh also.
As I had mentioned earlier, we were bummed to see that one of our favorites from the San Juan location had not made the transition to Mission Viejo, but they were kind enough to make the Cazuela de Queso ($14) for us on this evening. They use a cheese blend of manchego, oaxaco, and a cheese fondue mixed with sour cream, serrano peppers, and homemade chorizo to create this appetizer. Since Daniele has a delicate palate she requested the chorizo be served on the side because she finds the crumbled pork to be too spicy. We let her have the first serving and then we dumped the chorizo in and mixed it around. It still ended up being very good. The inclusion of the sour cream makes this lighter and creamier than a regular queso fundido. The corn tortillas are made here and are an excellent vessel for this must order appetizer.
I love the carnitas at Sol Agave but have had them numerous times, so it was time for something different. The Tacos de Hongo ($20) was a good choice on this evening. I was presented with a bubbling skillet of cheese which was topped with skirt steak, portobello mushrooms and onions. As this sat for a while, the cheese got nice and toasted and reminded me of a cheese skirt that I've seen on some burgers on TV. The steak was good, but a little overcooked as I asked for it to be medium rare and it came out more like medium well. I did make a couple tacos with this, but I forgot to take pictures of the flour tortillas. Rice and beans were fair, but I prefer refried beans. Not a bad dinner option, but I might go back to my carnitas on my next trip to Sol Agave.
With my glowing recommendation, Tom ordered the Carnitas ($15). The guys at Sol Agave use organic Kurobuta pork for their carnitas. What I like about the carnitas is that there is a little bit of everything for everyone. The pork has some parts which are a little fatty, some crisp parts, and some that are in between both. Whichever bite you get it's going to be flavorful and go really well with the provided corn tortillas and guacamole. Tom liked this but did not seem as excited as I was about it.
Our little diva Daniele was torn between a few items on the Sol Agave menu and after much debate and many questions to our very patient server, she went with the Steak Fajitas de La Casa ($23). I thought this was the most generous portion size of all the entrees that we had on this evening. They also appeared to have cooked this steak to the perfect medium rare that Daniele requested. I liked the look of this from across the table because they did not bog down this fajita plate with lots of veggies, which is why I usually steer clear of fajitas in restaurants. Daniele only ate half of this and took the other half home for lunch the next day. She probably could have finished but she needed time to fill us in on her love for the chickens at her new workplace. Riveting stuff as always. Kidding of course D.
I think I ended up liking Sol Agave more than the rest of my dining partners on this evening. Yes, there were some minor issues with service, but not anything that would prevent us from coming back. I found it interesting to see the difference in the preparation of the food between the two locations and also what they chose to bring over to this much more visible location. I think the main issue I have with Sol Agave is that they do not serve big enough portions for what you pay, making this more of a once in awhile restaurant instead of coming here weekly. They are using better ingredients than most places, so if that's something that's important to you, this might be your new place for Mexican food. See, I can go through a whole review of a restaurant at the Kalidiscope and not talk about its shortcomings.
Out of five purses, (because not only is the Kaleidoscope the location for this restaurant, but Kaleidoscope is also a woman's catalog retailer based in England, and I'm sure they sell plenty of purses) five being best to zero being worst, Sol Agave gets 3 purses.
For more information about Sol Agave, head to their website here: http://www.solagave.com/