The Pearl Street Mall is home to five Mexican restaurants. This week, downtown Boulder welcomed its sixth, which stands out as the first fine-dining option to showcase regional Mexican cuisine.
Masas & Agaves serves farm-to-table dishes and mezcal from Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico. After a soft launch on July 7, the restaurant officially opened its doors on Aug. 15 at 909 Walnut Street, the former location of Supermoon.
According to Manuel Gandara, Masas & Agaves’ general manager, many of its first customers noted that the restaurant fills a gap in Boulder’s Mexican food scene with its authentic cooking. Gandara said achieving this was his primary goal.
“I hope when people leave, we transport them to — I’m not going to say Oaxaca, because a lot of people haven’t been to Oaxaca — the last place they were in Mexico,” Gandara said. “I would feel like I didn’t do my job if they said, ‘This restaurant is the same as the last Mexican restaurant I went to in the United States.’”
The owner of Masas & Agaves, David Mendoza, previously opened a casual Mexican restaurant in Bismarck, North Dakota. Gandara said that Mendoza was eyeing a fine-dining restaurant in Boulder because he thought locals would particularly appreciate high-quality, farm-to-table cuisine. About a year ago, Mendoza asked Gandara to join him in launching Masas & Agaves. Gandara had been the manager at Jill’s Restaurant & Bistro at the St Julien Hotel in Boulder, and he brought some ideas to the new venture.
“I didn’t want it to be [just another] fine-dining Mexican restaurant,” Gandara said. Instead, he suggested focusing on a specific region of Mexico. They ultimately settled on Oaxaca, the hometown of the restaurant’s chef, Silvestre Fernandez.
Oaxacan meals are known for their slow-cooked meats and the use of adobo marinades and sauces made from chili peppers and spices. Masas & Agaves features authentic Oaxacan recipes, which blend innovation and Indigenous traditions passed down over generations.
The menu’s buffalo short rib, made with birria tatemada, or marinated goat meat, is Fernandez’s family recipe from Oaxaca. Gandara said another kitchen staff member from Mexico makes salsas from her family’s six-generation-old recipes.
A growing customer favorite, the croquetas a la pibil, is a traditional dish from southern Mexico. These have a Yucatan-spiced pork filling in a crispy breaded shell. For dessert, Fernandez prepares Oaxacan-style churros infused with agave liqueur and vanilla imported from Oaxaca, which is known for its vanilla beans.
As Gandara also pointed out, Oaxaca is renowned for its mezcal. While tequila is a specific type of mezcal produced from one variety of agave plant, mezcal can be made from any combination of around 30 different agave types.
Every mezcal at Masas & Agaves comes from Oaxaca, and much of it is small-batch and organic. The bartenders mix drinks directly at the table, so customers can watch them squeeze fresh fruit juice and learn about the histories of certain cocktails.
The restaurant’s signature drink is the cantarito, made with tequila, orange and a grapefruit spritz. “If you go to Mexico, the cantarito is the biggest hit, instead of the margarita,” Gandara said.
For a non-alcoholic taste of Oaxaca, consider tejuino, a drink made from fermented corn masa, raw cane sugar and lime. Gandara’s family, like many in Mexico, often ferments leftover masa from tortillas to create beverages that pair with their meals.
“Oaxacan food focuses on zero waste,” Gandara said, something he and his team hope to educate customers about, along with the origins of the other items on Masas & Agaves’ menu.
“We are here to teach people and provide them with an experience. They’ll go home going, ‘I learned a little bit about tequila or the culture.’”
Masas & Agaves is open at 909 Walnut Street in downtown Boulder, Sunday through Thursday from 3-10 p.m. and until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.