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Front Page - Friday, October 22, 2021

Maybe ‘epic’ is the appropriate word for Agave & Rye

A trio of epic tacos at Agave & Rye in Chattanooga. - Photos by David Laprad | Hamilton County Herald

Definition of epic:

1: of, relating to, or having the characteristics of an epic

2: extending beyond the usual or ordinary, especially in size or scope

Let me tell you about the epic tacos at Agave & Rye.

Agave & Rye is an epic new restaurant in downtown Chattanooga. If you ever ate breakfast at The Blue Plate near the Riverwalk, you can stop mourning its demise because something epically better now occupies that space.

No, I have not forgotten to vary my word use; I have been to Agave & Rye. And just like having a catchy song stuck in my head, I can’t stop using the word “epic.”

Indulge me for a few paragraphs until I get to the tacos.

The week before Agave & Rye opened Oct. 13, the company’s director of operations gave me tour of the Chattanooga site. (There are 10 Agave & Ryes in five states. This is the first in Tennessee.)

A few minutes into the walkthrough, I noticed he was preceding every noun with the word “epic.” The staff is epic, the decor and wall art are epic and the food is epic.

“Key word, epic?” I asked.

“There’s no other way to describe us,” he replied. He missed my epic eye roll when he turned to say something to an employee.

When I called Agave & Rye a few days later to find out when they would be opening, the person who answered the phone asked how she could make my day epic. When she hung up, she told me to have an epic afternoon.

I thought it was weird. Like, Jim Jones, Kool-Aid-on-the-menu weird. But then I realized it was a clever marketing tactic.

Urban Dictionary defines epic is “the most overused word ever.” And now when I hear the word “epic,” I think of the tacos at Agave & Rye.

So, when I arrived to eat during Agave & Rye’s second day of business in Chattanooga, I was not surprised when everyone in a company-issued black T-shirt was stuffing the word “epic” into every sentence.

The host asked me if I was having an epic day, replied “Epic” when I said I was and then gave me an “epic menu.”

She also gave me an “epic indicator,” a laminated card I could turn one way or the other to signify if I wanted help or to be left alone.

I can sense you reaching to turn the page. Stay with me.

Before leaving, the host also pointed the way to the restrooms, like a flight attendant before takeoff. That turned out to be helpful.

The menu at Agave & Rye is about two things: Tequila and tacos. There are appetizers, sides and other dishes, but the main attractions are the libations and the food referred to in the Old Testament as manna.

What else could the food that materialized on the ground outside the Israelites’ camp every morning been but tacos? Is there another class of cuisine that could have descended from heaven? I don’t think so.

If you’re skeptical, perhaps a meal at Agave & Rye would change your mind.

As its name suggests, Agave & Rye is not a Tex-Mex joint. While the restaurant does offer a traditional beef taco, that’s the closest it comes to serving Mexican food.

Rather, the pairing of a soft and a crunchy shell at Agave & Rye provides a conveyance for nearly two dozen unique and inventive culinary creations. If you have ever thought there truly is nothing new under the sun, then a few minutes reading the menu Agave & Rye will change your mind.

The Swipe Right sits at the top left of the menu, where your eyes will naturally fall, and reading its list of ingredients is like settling into a roller coaster as the cars are rattling toward the first hill.

Stuffed with herbed chicken, sweet and spicy bacon, aged white cheddar, salsa and sour cream, it’s the first indication that you’re in for a wild ride.

The menu gathers speed gradually. As you reach the first hill and start the ascent to the top, you’ll come to the Crown Jewel, a seafood-themed taco crammed with butter and garlic lobster, shiitake mushrooms, macaroni and cheese, truffle oil and shaved green onions.

Farther down the menu (but up the imaginary hill), I spotted The Rooster, which comes with crispy chicken, macaroni and cheese, Nashville hot sauce and sweet pickles. It sounded like a simple but zesty take on a popular sandwich.

As the coaster inched its way to the top, I read the ingredients for each entry and tried to imagine what a taco filled andouille sausage and bourbon shrimp, or peppercorn kangaroo (you read that right), or barbacoa pork and pineapple mango habanero sauce, or sea salted tater tots and fried eggs tasted like.

At one point, my server stopped at my table and asked if I had questions, but I said no. Clearly, someone had used their imagination when crafting the menu for Agave & Rye, and I was enjoying using mine.

Finally, as the coaster reached the top of the hill and started to drop, I came to the Phanatic Phil, a Wild West wonder crammed with carne asada steak, Serrano aioli, queso, shiitake mushrooms, red bells peppers, Havarti, shredded lettuce, pico and candied jalapenos.

“Wow,” I said when the server returned and asked if I was ready to order.

I can’t remember a restaurant where I had more trouble deciding, but I went with a Plain Jane and a Phanatic Phil. I also ordered a side of bourbon bacon barbecue beans for reasons that should be obvious from the name.

Each taco exceeded my hopes.

The Plain Jane is Agave & Rye’s take on the traditional ground beef taco, and mine was tasty. I’ve eaten more than my share of bland tacos, but the seasoned meat in my Plain Jane burst through the mouthfuls of lettuce, tomato, shredded cheese and sour cream. If you’re in the mood for traditional Tex-Mex, Agave & Rye has you covered.

If you’re in the mood for something with more kick, go with the Phanatic Phil. Not only is it packed with serious flavor, but there was also enough meat in my taco for three carne asada tacos at a garden variety Tex-Mex joint.

No offense to Jane, but when I return to Agave & Rye, I intend to skip her and double up on Phil. The Phanatic Phil is so good, I believe Agave & Rye could toss their “epic” marketing campaign and rely on positive word-of-mouth. (Maybe they tried that but no one would stop eating long enough to talk.)

I’ll be skipping the tequila, too, as it’s not my drink. If it’s yours, there are several housemade creations for you to try.

Perhaps you’d enjoy the OG Margarita, which I believe is Agave & Rye’s twist on the traditional margarita. It’s made with house silver tequila, triple sec, fresh lime juice, sugar water and “secrets.”

Or maybe the Little Red Corvette, which consists of House Silver Tequila, Grand Mariner, fresh lime juice, sugar water, orange juice, more secrets, a strawberry swirl and an edible rose, would be to your liking.

If neither of those appeal to you, there are several other drinks with fun names and intriguing ingredients to consider.

Should you come across an unfamiliar ingredient, the servers appear to know the menu like the back of their hands and seem to be capable of answering any questions you have. (During my tour, the staff was taking a quiz that tested their knowledge of the menu.)

The servers are also extraordinarily attentive. I don’t think three minutes passed without the young man who took my order stopping to ask how the food was and if I needed anything.

Not only that, but my cup of water stayed full, and when I was ready to pay my bill and leave I was gone in a matter of minutes – and the place was packed.

Essentially, he seemed to be on my timetable instead of expecting me to be on his. If you’ve ever felt forgotten at a restaurant, then you’ll appreciate this level of service.

As my server returned with my receipt, he smiled and told me to have an epic day. I took that moment to tell him I was tired of hearing that word and to suggest he might tire of saying it.

“Believe me, I understand,” he said, his server veneer cracking a little.

As he walked away, I pitied him a little. After leaving work, he probably does everything he can to avoid the word “epic” just to stay sane. This means he’ll never be able to read an epic poem, see an epic movie or embark on an epic road trip. It’s a little sad.

Maybe you’re starting to empathize with him. If so, don’t let your qualms about Agave & Rye’s irksome marketing tactic deter you from visiting the restaurant. Yes, you’ll hear enough “epics” to last a lifetime, but the tacos will have the last word.