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Photo by Anne Braly / ChaCha Enchiladas, served as a trio, are made with three kinds of cheeses and a tomato-vodka sauce. You can keep them vegetarian or add a protein.

The corner of Chestnut Street at the Chattanooga Green on downtown's waterfront is teeming with life again since Agave & Rye opened in the old Blue Plate Diner location.

The restaurant, the 10th for the Kentucky-based chain, is big, loud, colorful and bold. It's a place packed with Millennials, with a few Boomers here and there for good measure, this one included.

 

THE MENU

The base for most dishes is Mexican, but from there the menu puts a spin on several cultures, primarily Chinese. It's a little offbeat, very interesting, even epic. "Epic,"you will discover, is the motto of everything at Agave & Rye, from the food to the atmosphere to the service.

In combining the foodways of different cultures, the menu might be described as fusion, the buzzword of the culinary world in the 1990s. Fusion, though, has given way to mashup, a term for the marriage of not two different cultures, but two entirely different foods — like cronuts, from doughnuts and croissants.

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New Chattanooga restaurant Agave & Rye

In this case, it's the combination of dishes like kung pao chicken and a Mexican chimichanga. Or the reverse — Mexican carne asada in a Chinese egg roll. And kapow! Fusion meets mashup in an explosive game of ping-pong on your tastebuds with delicious rules that match different textures with flavors that work surprisingly well together.

Tacos are the specialty of the house at Agave & Rye, and without a doubt, expect the unexpected — or epic, as the menu promises. All tacos have two shells, an outer soft shell wrapped around an inner hard shell, but then the fun begins. They're stuffed with combinations like The Cat's Meow, which has bourbon shrimp, andouille sausage, grits, white cheddar cheese, green onion, crispy bell pepper, fried cilantro and jambalaya sauce. Or how about this? The Rooster with crispy chicken, mac and cheese, Nashville hot sauce and sweet pickles. Ever had a taco like that?

There are 20 Epic Taco choices on the menu, one to an order, but one is big enough to make a meal.

 

THE ORDER

I passed on the Carolina Reaper salsa with chips, as visions raced through my head of my mouth ablaze. Guacamole and chips seemed like a safe bet, and it was, but once again, it wasn't standard. The guac was delicious, full of lime and cilantro, but the chips were a little much — big, thick and crispier than a pita chip. Once again, expect the unexpected.

Next on deck, the Kung Pao Chimichanga. Oh my, that alone made a meal and was so good with incredible sticky rice. It had chicken, peanuts and water chestnuts stuffed inside a crispy flour tortilla topped with crispy rice noodles and served with sweet chili sauce. It was cut into four pieces, so it was easily divided between two people. An excellent choice.

My Yoda Epic Taco mirrored the chimichanga with more sticky rice, chicken and spicy kung pao sauce with a crispy carrot topping. A nice change of pace from the average taco.

There are choices other than tacos, such as the Epic Burger with two patties, bacon, queso, tobacco onions and other toppings — fries are extra. There's also a chopped salad; lo mein; a chicken sandwich; and ChaCha Enchiladas, a beautifully plated dish with three enchiladas — your choice of protein or none at all — stuffed with three cheeses and topped with tomato-vodka sauce.

There's even a dessert taco, the Salty Pimp, with salty caramel ice cream inside a sugary taco shell and covered with spicy dark chocolate and white chocolate pearls. Over the top? Maybe. Delicious? Yes.

The name tells you that Agave & Rye is known for its tequila and bourbons, and stacked behind the bar is evidence of that. As for the agave, I'm not a tequila drinker, but I am a fan of rye. Manhattans are one of my go-to cocktails, so I placed my order for one and got a lowball glass filled with ice and whiskey. Not a Manhattan. So I asked for it to be strained to remove the ice, and it was returned in the same glass with about an inch of liquor that I sipped on through dinner. Out of curiosity, I checked my receipt upon leaving and saw my cocktail not listed as a Manhattan, but as Jack Daniel's rye. I don't know what happened. On my next visit, I'll have what everyone else appeared to be having — colorful goblets of peach-bourbon punch or the OG frozen margarita served in a skull-shaped glass.

 

If You Go

— Where: Agave & Rye Tequila & Bourbon Hall, 185 Chestnut St.

— Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday

— Price range: $8-$13 (shareable appetizers); $6-$8 (Epic Tacos); $11-$13 (Grilled Street Taco plates); $8-$13 (burgers, enchiladas and salads)

— Alcohol: Full bar

— Phone: 423-475-6403

— Online: agaveandrye.com

 

THE SERVICE

There seemed to be plenty of servers ready to assist with meal delivery and other needs. In a time when restaurants are begging for help, Agave & Rye doesn't appear to be suffering.

When seated, customers are brought a small laminated sign. On one side is written "Hola!," which, in Agave & Rye language, translates to: I need service. Turn the sign over, and it reads "Just Chillin'." In other words, leave me be. It's an interesting concept that anyone who's had a server constantly refilling water glasses and interrupting conversation can appreciate. It worked for us.

Dinner was delivered with little wait and was accurate.

 

THE SPACE

It was nice seeing all the activity outside Agave & Rye with tables out front filled with diners.

But wait till you get inside and see the transformation from Southern diner to tequila and bourbon hall. Giant wall murals line the dining room and bar area. Eye-catching chandeliers with hanging glass orbs make for an interesting and fun lighting choice.

The decor may raise an eyebrow, but give it a chance. It's something new to experience. Be forewarned: When the restaurant is busy, it gets really loud.

 

THE VERDICT

Agave & Rye brings a new dimension in dining to Chattanooga's waterfront and the neighborhood around the Tennessee Aquarium — one that was needed after the past year when we've seen so many eateries close or cut back because of lack of help. It's a welcome addition, with a creative menu you won't see anywhere else in town.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com or annebraly.com.

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