By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Blue Agave Mexican Cantina owner Brian Johnson was excited to have a day like January 21. A socially distanced group of diners “filled” — albeit at 50% capacity — the 14-year-old restaurant.
“Times are tough here and there,” Johnson says. “When COVID first hit, it was challenging. Thank God I’m a chef by trade and my partner in the restaurant is, too. We jumped in the kitchen and cooked every day for two months.
“We kept one or two cooks, and all of our employees came back except one or two — and that was their choice. We invited everyone back and needed them. It shows they like working here.”
A 1997 Scottsdale Culinary Institute graduate, Johnson has had his hands in French, Italian and Chinese cuisine.
When the Chinese concept closed, he realized he was tired of the corporate world. Blue Agave Mexican Cantina was the perfect fit.
“We bought this off the previous owner,” Johnson says. “We liked the feel of the place and its location. We decided to give it a shot. We renovated the inside, redid the menus and the bar over time.”
The “shot” was successful. Affordable with large portions, Blue Agave Mexican Cantina has an extensive menu broken into appetizers, tacos, Mexican “flare,” salad/soups/wraps, agave creations and enchiladas.
The most popular dish, Johnson says, is the ultimate chimichanga filled with slow-roasted pork, cilantro rice, pinto beans and mixed cheese. Dubbed “very spicy,” the entrée ($15.99) is smothered with green chili sauce, pico de gallo, baja cream sauce, jalapeno cream sauce, chipotle puree, guacamole and sour cream.
Fish tacos take a close second, with a choice of grilled or flash-fried fish, sliced avocado, pico de gallo, red cabbage and chipotle mayo Oaxaca dipping sauce ($13.49).
Spicy cholula chicken salad with a lettuce mix, mixed cheeses, pico de gallo, crispy fried chicken, spicy cholula sauce and chipotle ranch ($12.99) is another standout dish.
Those who eschew Mexican food may try the border burger — a 1/2-pound Black Angus burger with poblano pepper crispy bacon, sliced tomato and avocado, American cheese and chipotle mayo ($11.99) — or the carne asada pizza ($13.99).
“We have different dishes on our menu,” Johnson says. “You can get a hamburger. You can get pasta. You name it. We try to keep it broad so people who come here have a choice if they don’t necessarily like Mexican.”
Johnson says the COVID-19 pandemic posed a pleasant surprise for him.
“I struggled for three or four months, but we were also over sales from last year. That has to do with catering.”
He also attributes that to taking care of his people, and his passion for food and the hospitality industry.
“If not, you’ll just get eaten up,” he says — no pun intended. There is so much going on, with different personalities. You have to be able to interact with different personalities and different kinds of people and be able to take care of them, make them feel comfortable, make them want to come in and return.”
Food has kept Johnson inspired.
“I just love food and I love cooking,” Johnson says. “I’ve done this my whole life. That’s why I got out of college. I was studying business.”
He followed his passion all the way to Arizona, to Scottsdale Culinary Institute — and he loved it, just as expected.
“I actually wish I would have went a little earlier, but sometimes it takes a while to figure out what you really want to do.” ν
Blue Agave Mexican Cantina
7000 E. Mayo Boulevard, Phoenix
11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday
11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday