PROSPECT HEIGHTS/CROWN HEIGHTS – It took Antonio Vilchis ten years of running Mexicocina in the Bronx (eleven this November) to consider venturing into Brooklyn, and he does not regret it. Mexicocina Agaveria, a tidy, small space on Washington Avenue on the edge of Prospect Heights and Crown Heights, opened on March 11.
Their bar shelves are filled with tequila (mostly) and there is a patio with brightly colored flags in the back. The slim walkway that separates the front and back seating areas and connects to the kitchen, is where Antonio is most often, packing to-go orders, chatting with his employees, and running food to his tables. He is not what you would call a behind-the-scenes owner, commuting the two hours on the train to work at the Agaveria five days a week.
“I still wait tables. Like I said we’re just starting business in this location so me and my partner wait tables once or twice a week. I do [enjoy it]. It’s part of being in the business,” Vilchis said. “Believe it or not when I wait tables it takes a little bit of stress. My mind is busy. It keeps my mind busy and [keeps me] physically busy too. I am stress free when I wait tables.” This you can tell, as his smile comes easily and often when he is talking to customers at his new location.
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Vilchis is no stranger to putting in the work. When he first opened Mexicocina in the Bronx, he had a small staff, only three people for the first six months.
“I was doing a little bit of everything, I was doing the cooking, I was doing deliveries when there was no one to do deliveries because when we opened, I opened a small place and you don’t have enough money to hire people,” Vilichis said.
The Agaveria is already doing “ten times” better, he said.
When I visited, on a Friday evening, business was good. The patio was full, and the bar was getting there.
“No pressure, but it’s fantastic,” a girl told her friend, gushing over the margarita she had just been served by head bartender, Carlos Rojas. Rojas and Vilchis have been friends since 2005, where they met working in a restaurant together.
Hospitality is in Vilchis’ blood. He sits me down and insists I try things- starting with two cocktails created by Rojas for the Agaveria.
They are both excellent- the JCP is spicy and embraces the taste of the mezcal, while the Curasantera is mintier, lighter, and sweeter, still letting that signature tequila shine.
The food is equally homey as it is fun. Vilchis credits his success in part to the good ingredients they use- fresh herbs, homemade beans, rice, and tortilla chips.
The tortilla soup, served tableside, is spicy and has cheese pulls to rival Raclette. Uncooked avocados add a freshness to the dish, and as the soup is poured at your table, the tortillas remain crunchy.
Vilchis smile grows somehow bigger as he brings over a tlayuda, their off-menu special.
“It’s on a special tortilla we get from Oaxaca, pure corn tortillas ten inches round. It has black beans, greens, queso Oaxaca… We [are] just introducing it to the neighborhood, to this area, and it’s been selling really great,” Vilchis says of the tlayuda, which is unlike anything I’ve had here. Think Mexican pizza, with black beans instead of red sauce and big chunks of queso Oaxaca instead of mozzarella.
Vilchis, who hails from Puebla, Mexico, has been in love with the restaurant business since he first moved here.
“Since I moved to New York I started working in the restaurant business. I wasn’t cooking but I was setting tables, bussing tables, and just watched how they cooked…Seeing the chefs, working with good chefs… I was watching. And, I love to eat, so I was like ‘you know, I can do this’. So I started cooking everything,” Vilchis, who created many of the original Mexicocina recipes, said.
This latest venture is actually the fourth restaurant Vilchis has opened. Mexicocina had two other Bronx locations, eventually closing due to rent hikes at the end of their five-year leases. This setback didn’t slow him down in the slightest.
“I wanted to grow my business. I wanted to survive in the business. I love being in the restaurant business, I love owning a restaurant, and giving jobs. At the end of the day that will make me happy, giving jobs. I love meeting people, customer wise, so I like that too,” Vilchis says. He employs around 20 people between his two locations.
Vilchis is in his element, and that shines through in the food and the drinks he serves. Mexicocina Agaveria invites you in, and makes you want to stay for just one more Curasantera, just one more bite of guacamole.
Hours: Open daily 11am-11pm. 708 Washington Ave, between Prospect Place and St. Marks Ave.