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Jewel in the Desert 

The dining experience at Agave is worth the drive down Interstate 19.

All casino restaurants start off with one strike against them because, well, they're located in casinos.

Sometimes, you just aren't in the mood for the pinging and the jingles and the smoke and the neon, and you don't want to walk through all that chaos just to get a bite to eat. And in many cases--even at some of Las Vegas' world-class restaurants--you can't even escape this chaos inside the restaurants, because they're located directly off the casino floor. From a casino standpoint, this makes sense--it's all about keeping people around the slots and the tables, baby--but from a dining standpoint, it's annoying.

Having said that, in the traditional sense, Agave is not a quote-unquote "casino restaurant." And thank God for that; it helps make Agave quite a little gem.

The folks who put together the Desert Diamond at Pima Mine Road and Interstate 19 placed Agave off to the side of the courtyard between the main casino and the Diamond Center, the entertainment venue at the Tohono O'odham's flagship casino. This isolates the restaurant from the casino chaos; it also made it hard for Irene Messina and me to find on our recent visit, as we wandered into the main casino area expecting to find it there.

Once we found Agave, we were instantly impressed with how it looked. It's a nice place; floor-to-ceiling windows stand in place of a wall on the side facing the courtyard, and outdoor patio seating is abundant. Earth tones dominate the décor, with wooden chairs and tables, tan and textured walls and carpeting that looks a like a muted leopard print, with browns and subtle orange highlights. Real plants, including aloe, are situated around the main dining room, and jazz plays in the background. The only hints that you're at a casino complex come from the small white lights that go around the restaurant where the wall meets the ceiling, and from the heavily older demographic of its clientele. (This is not surprising, seeing as Green Valley is just down the road.)

It took a bit longer than usual for our server to come by and give us our menus; when she did, she apologized and explained that because of some renovations in the kitchen, things were taking a bit longer than normal. I appreciated the heads-up; as it turned out, our server ended up being thoroughly delightful. She was knowledgeable, informative and friendly--another feather in Agave's cap.

The menu, at least to me, looked fantastic. Three appetizers--Maryland crab cakes ($8.95), coconut shrimp ($8.50) and a three-cheese and roasted green chile quesadilla with chicken, beef or rock shrimp ($5.95)--were available, as were the signature tortilla soup ($4.50) and six salads. A dozen entrées were also there ($5.95-$14.95), including several pastas, steak, salmon, baby back pork ribs and six sandwiches. I struggled to decide what to order; I eventually decided on the soup, the crab cakes and the penne pasta with pan-roasted rock shrimp ($9.25).

Meanwhile, Irene was struggling in a different way: There was almost nothing on the menu she could eat. Vegetarians, take note: Do not eat here. Every appetizer and entrée salad, and all but one of the main courses, include some variant of meat or seafood. (On the dinner menu, there are two vegetarian appetizers--foccacia pizza rustica, $5.25 and a beefsteak tomato and grilled asparagus plate, $7.50--and ZERO vegetarian entrées.) Thus, Irene had to make do with the one veggie lunch entrée, Mediterranean grilled vegetables on pita bread ($5.75)--even though she's currently doing the Atkins thing, meaning she couldn't eat the pita--and a side Agave salad ($2.50 with meal).

Irene was also tortured by the carb-intensive, piping-hot rolls delivered to our table. They smelled phenomenal; I ate one, and it had a fairly standard taste. I don't think Irene believed me when I told her it was only OK.

In no time at all, our server delivered the appetizer, soup and salad. The thing that caught our attention was the bowl the soup came in. It was shaped like someone cut a round, ceramic globe in half, warped it a little and flattened part of it so it could be used as a bowl. Presentation was a priority here, as tortilla chips stuck out of the soup in a pattern along the sides. Thankfully, taste was a priority as well; although it was nowhere near authentic, the soup was flavorful. Lots of chicken chunks mixed with the avocado, queso fresco, salsa fresca, cilantro and lime to give it a peppy taste, dominated by the tomato and the lime.

Irene was also happy with her salad. Containing a variety of lettuces, corn, black beans, tomatoes and jicama, and topped with the sweet-tasting house vinaigrette, it was a wonderful salad. I was thrilled that Irene was able to eat at least one thing at the restaurant.

My crab cakes were great, except for one major flaw: The accompanying dill pickle remoulade was way, way too much. Served with a bevy of marinated artichoke hearts, the yellow-colored cakes tasted fresh and delicious. But it took some sleuthing to find this out: Each of the cakes sat on a dollop of the dill remoulade that was so strong, it destroyed all the other tastes. The remoulade needs to be toned down by at least half, or the volume of it needs to be cut drastically.

Soon after we finished our appetizers, our server brought our entrées. They weren't tardy, as our server warned they'd be. And they were both fine. Irene's pita bread looked more like a tortilla than pita bread, although it indeed tasted pita-like. The grilled vegetables--sprouts, tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, eggplant, onions and zucchini--were fresh, Irene said, and the Greek dressing was sweet and mellow, enhancing the flavor of the vegetables nicely. She also liked her accompanying coleslaw, although it had a less-pungent flavor than your usual slaw.

I enjoyed my pasta, too. They didn't skimp on the shrimp, and the morsels were well-distributed in the pasta, along with spinach, artichoke hearts, dried tomatoes and cheese. The basil pesto sauce has a nice, buttery flavor, although it was more watery than I would have liked. (This helped lead to a mess in transit after I got the uneaten portion to-go.) All in all, it was a successful dish; it was something I'd order again.

It was a wonderful dining experience. I look forward to returning to Agave for dinner one day soon, so I can try one of their certified-Angus steaks. I am also happy I won't have to deal with the casino chaos while dining--although I will have to find another dining partner, someone who can eat meat.

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