Exquisite Oaxaca

Masas & Agaves brings elevated regional Mexican fare to Walnut’s west end

Courtesy: Masas & Agaves

Masas & Agaves did not hit the scene with some loud announcement. But since July, there’s been the lingering scent of fresh tortillas wafting as far west as Lolita’s and, on a good day, on the south end of the St Julien.  

For those lured in by the aroma or the restaurant’s growing reputation, they will immediately be blown away by the design, with chic accouterments befitting the kind of stylish haunts that have been popping up in New York or Mexico City.

“We wanted to create something more unique, more elevated,” says general manager Manuel Gandara, a native of Durango, Mexico, who moved to Boulder in his 20s to attend the University of Colorado.

The place is a vision of refinement, with the cuisine landing squarely in the realm of Oaxacan fine dining. Salsa macha and mole negro underpin a number of the dishes, each one alone being reason enough to visit. The scratch tortillas are made by Lola Gonzalez, who Gandara also credits with making the best beans, rice and mole found anywhere outside her home state of Michoacán. The whole staff exudes talent, with servers executing their role with a grace that matches the food’s caliber and ambitions. 

“A good restaurant is not just about one person,” Gandara says, “it’s about the entire team,”

Even so, the menu takes time to give credit where credit is due, listing chef Silvestre Fernandez and “mixologist” Steven Fernandez as the men behind the magic in both kitchen and bar. The cocktail list is full of carefully composed classics including a margarita, made with Suerte and Grove Street orange liqueur, and a Cantarito with Lalo, grapefruit, orange and a grapefruit spritz. There are also some more adventurous options like the truly unmissable Quetzal with Bozal Ensamble mezcal, beet, orange and agave that is both powerfully earthy and as resplendent as its namesake. 

The NA crowd is also in luck, being treated to a list of regional fermentations rather than a list of simple mocktails. The tapache, with pineapple, piloncillo, chai, cinnamon and clove, is a house favorite, but the chicha morada, with maiz azul or blue corn, clove, cinnamon, anise, apple peel and dehydrated pineapple might be the better fit for the holiday season.

The menu will change seasonally and the latest set of fare is set to roll out Nov. 10. Two new dishes — Sopa Oaxaca, with chicken and fresh vegetables, and Posole de Pescado, a seafood-rich take on the classic hominy-heavy dish — will land just in time for soup season. 

“We cannot overlook the traditional tamales during this holiday season,” Gandara says. New additions include the tamales de asado with succulent pork and dried peppers and the tamales de rajas with cheese and poblanos. 

While there’s plenty to get excited about in the fall offerings, there are a few evergreen dishes that are sure to endear Masas to Boulder’s dining public and help to establish it as a lasting institution. 

The tlayuda, a fried tortilla topped with cotija and Oaxaca cheeses, refried beans and the truly divine salsa macha is easy snack fare with deceptive depth. The scallops al ajillo with garlic, dried peppers, lemon and avocado is a good light entree, but it’s the pollo rostisado that will have guests eagerly dreaming about their next visit. It’s probably the best way to approach Gonzalez’ mole negro head-on, though the enmoladas are sure to be a hit with the enchilada crowd, being served with tinga, cotija, black beans and a healthy helping of the rich sauce. The tacos are also worthwhile, arriving three to a plate on tortillas massive enough to make a single one a solid meal for less-hungry visitors. Go with the arrachera that comes with a chimichurri that’s almost reminiscent of Greek fare’s brighter flavors.

While its arrival has been gentle, Masas and Agaves is clearly the kind of place that speaks softly and carries a big stick. It deserves its cool confidence, and clearly has the juice to make a lasting impression.

“We love the people,” says Gandara. “They’re ready to celebrate new cultures.”