200903ANCHOAGAVE

Served in both ‘Street’ and ‘Avenue’ varieties, tacos are prominent on the menu at Ancho & Agave in Middleton, writes Gazette restaurant reviewer Aaron R. Conklin.

MIDDLETON

The space that houses the Mexican-fusion restaurant Ancho & Agave in Middleton’s Greenway Station remains as cavernous as it was when it housed the Fuddruckers that closed up shop last year. And on one hand, this does offer the distinctly easier possibility of eating indoors with plenty of social distancing.

The Illinois-based ownership group for Ancho & Agave also helms the Biaggi’s chain of Italian restaurants—how convenient, given that there’s one right next door—which is essentially a firework flare on the formula at play here. Big space paired with a wide-ranging menu that mixes the expected and more than a few things that make you go hmmm. Normally, that kind of volume approach yields mixed results, but for the most part, Ancho & Agave makes it all work.

As with many restaurants, Ancho & Agave has streamlined its menu in the wake of the pandemic, but the result is only some minor fat-trimming (chimichanga lovers, you’re basically out of luck.) But 12 of the 14 tacos that were available pre-pandemic are very much in evidence, running the gamut from familiar to fusion freaktacular. And tacos are very much the headliner here.

The menu arranges them based on ingredient price: A “Street” taco will set you back $3.50, while an “Avenue” bumps the price up by 50 cents. That pair of extra quarters gets you things such as a Nashville Hot Fried Chicken taco that’s really only Nashville Medium, or a Baja Fish Taco that’s a little mushier than you’re likely to appreciate.

The Chicken Asada Taco, which features a great balance of grilled meat, chilis and charred corn, is the best of the Street menu. The Avenue champ is, unexpectedly, the Barbacoa, which drizzles a tomato crema sauce over braised short-rib meat.

The vegetarian crowd is likely to be drawn to the Cauliflower Taco (Street), which actually offers mostly texture, leaving the heavy flavor lifting to the portabella mushrooms. The Avocado (Avenue) taco, which batters its central ingredient to give it additional heft, also is a great choice.

The tortilla chips, a universal benchmark by which any Mexican (or Mexican-fusion) restaurant must be measured, pass with flying colors. These discrete, triangle-shaped numbers are crispy, thick and fried, almost like miniature throwing stars (this is a good thing). Their texture pairs nicely with the spicy red salsa they are served with, but it’s also worth upgrading to one of four different guacamoles, each served cold.

Adding in charred pineapple and pomegranate seeds ($7.75) to your guac is one of those unusual and interesting touches that is tempting to steal for the home front.

The spicing in A&A’s other entrée options tends toward the stealth variety. The smooth taste of the shrimp and crab enchilada ($14.50), awash in a grilled tomatillo cream sauce, is unexpectedly punctuated by the sudden sneak-attack sear of a pepper or the crispy crunch of a roasted vegetable. The burritos, which share many of their ingredients with items on the taco menu, are similarly elevated by their sauces.

A&A’s quesadillas are like tortilla-flavored manhole covers, packed heavily with chili-lime shrimp and cheese ($14.25) or tomato-sauced Chicken Tinga ($13.75). Ancho & Agave definitely embraces the more-is-more vibe rocked by other burgeoning chain outfits.

For the next month or so, there’s an outdoor patio to enjoy your tacos and margaritas—but you had better be sure you call ahead. The lightning-quick and efficient curbside service, meanwhile, will be huge when the temperature drops.

Aaron R. Conklin is a freelance writer based in Madison. He has written about food, theater and pop culture for publications such as Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Magazine.

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