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Agaves Mexican Grill
** 1/2
Out of a possible five
The Blue Burrito stuffed with beef, chicken and shrimp at Agaves on Washington Center Road.

Ceviche highlights trip to Agaves

It has the look and feel of a chain restaurant, but Agaves Mexican Grill on Washington Center Road is a Fort Wayne original.

Its typically designed menu with glossy pictures and its plethora of Tex-Mex staples also scream chain, but if you look hard enough you can find more authentic dishes. I liked the place when it first opened in 2007 and have recommended it over the years, but it had been awhile since I last dined there.

What I found this time were some of the same things that made me love it before, but also some things that have me thinking twice about recommending it again.

The atmosphere is still pretty much spot on. It seamlessly mixes old-world accents of dark wood and brick with modern details, is clean and designed well so you feel comfortable instead of crowded. The noise level varied, but, overall, it was not bothersome.

With an eye on the more authentic, a pair of entrées immediately caught my attention and they had mixed results.

The Peruvian Ceviche, designated as “new” on the menu, was fantastic. Whitefish and shrimp were marinated and cured in lime juice and vinegar and combined with celery, cucumbers, carrots, habanero peppers, red onions and fresh avocado. The entire bowl was also dusted with oregano.

Oregano is not typically used in ceviche and was not found on any Peruvian ceviche recipe I could find, but it worked nicely, giving a peppery sharpness to this vibrant, light, refreshing dish that made me pine for summer. It was served with tortillas, but I liked using chips better. It was healthy and inviting with a nice texture combination from the creamy, ripe avocado chunks and the super crunchy cucumbers.

Sopes are a favorite of mine, so I was eager to try them at Agaves. But that eagerness was met with disappointment.

The two large patties of fried cornmeal were smeared with refried beans and topped with pork and beef – as I chose the mixed variation – shredded lettuce, queso fresco and a drizzle of sour cream. For starters, those masa patties were soft and mushy instead of crisp on the outside and tender inside like they should be. They were more like corn pancakes and I hated them.

The meats were bland and flavorless; so bland I could not really tell the difference between the pork and the beef. It was not seasoned with anything to make it seem Mexican. I tried using Agaves’ tasty salsa – fresh and tangy with just the right spice – to liven it up with little success.

The salsa did turn what was already a tasty soup into something I must have again. I just added a little to the beef consume, which had tender, stringy stewed meat, rice, carrot and onion in a savory broth. The chopped cilantro and diced red onion on top made it look Mexican, but the flavor was straight up American until it took on the tomatoes and heat from the salsa. I downed every drop of it.

The chicken tortilla soup was also a winner with pulled chicken, the standard vegetables, cilantro, crispy tortilla strands and a hefty topping of melted white cheese. What really lifted it was a touch of fresh lime to brighten it up.

The other appetizers I tried were so forgettable I would just stick with the carte blanche chips and salsa instead.

The Charro Dip – charro beans and chorizo in gooey white queso dip – arrived stone cold and I had to send it back. Finding someone to take it back was a problem, however, as my server could not be found until he brought the main courses, which sort of made the dip moot. When he finally brought a hot version of it, it was tasty.

The Fajita Nachos looked the part and had the right toppings – steak (chicken also an option), grilled peppers and onions, lettuce, pico de gallo, cheese sauce and sour cream – but the cheese sauce had been sloppily poured over it so it slid off the chips and toppings and pooled underneath on the plate. As a result, all of the chips on the bottom were soggy like chilaquiles while the toppings and chips on top were begging for cheese. I was able to dig my way to the bottom for cheese, but it made the dish more of a chore than it was worth.

The unique spinach quesadilla and Blue Burrito were worth having again.

The quesadilla was stuffed with fajita-style grilled onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, fresh spinach leaves and cheese. There was plenty of the spinach, which wilted under the heat but still could be tasted in each bite. There could have been more cheese, however; it was kind of lost, but I had hoped it would have melded with the spinach making this quesadilla more like spinach dip. Still, it was tasty and I will just get a side of cheese dip to boost it up next time.

The burrito was promoted as “The real deal!” and it was with grilled steak, chicken and shrimp marinated in spicy adobo sauce, pico de gallo, rice, black beans and corn. On top, it was coated in cheese sauce and a zesty white chipotle cream sauce. The sauce perfectly flavored the meats, the black beans added more bulk to it and the cream sauce was delicious. My only complaint was that I would have liked more corn.

That adobo sauce would have been welcomed in another bland failure, the Alambres. Grilled steak, bacon, onion and green peppers were roasted on two skewers. Both meats were too thinly sliced and the steak ended up terribly overcooked while the bacon, which was pressed firmly between the layers of steak, was rubbery and undercooked. But the worst part was that the steak, like the meat on those sopes, was not seasoned and basically flavorless.

Speaking of a lack of flavor, even my margarita was bland. It seemed watered down and weak. I asked for a couple of extra lime wedges hoping to squeeze some life into it, but even they did not help.

And I got little help from a server when it came to dessert. He was not sure what all they had and could not produce a dessert list because he said they were going through a menu transition. I settled on the rather basic fried ice cream and sopapillas, which he was able to remember. But, alas, he returned a few minutes later to tell me they were out of fried ice cream.

Restaurant: Agaves Mexican Grill

Address: 212 E. Washington Center Road

Phone: 482-4282

Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Mexican

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: Full bar

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Charro dip ($4.99), Fajita Nachos ($9.99), beef consume ($4.75), chicken tortilla soup ($3.19 cup; $4.49 bowl), Alambres ($10.99), Peruvian ceviche ($10.75), Blue Burrito ($10.74), spinach quesadilla ($6.99), sopes ($7.81)

Rating breakdown: Food: * 1/2 (3-star maximum); atmosphere: * (1 maximum), service: 0 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.