A love of scuba diving led to lots of vacations in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean for Omaha chef John Gobel.
Culinary ideas from those areas are now on the menu of his Agave restaurant in the Dundee neighborhood.
Gobel, 31, is a graduate of Metropolitan Community College, where he earned diplomas in culinary arts, bakery arts and food-service management. His father, Pat Gobel, owns the Dundee Dell. The younger Gobel opened Agave in May.
Q. You were born into the restaurant business.
A. At 2 years old I was sitting at a bar stool in the Neon Goose. Dad was working there as one of the bartenders for (co-owners) Mac Thompson and Bill Johnette. Dad has worked as a waiter at M's Pub and at the French Cafe as a bartender and a waiter.
I started at Vivace under (chef) Jere Jenkins. I worked at M's Pub in the prep kitchen. I tried waiting tables a while at the Dell and the French Cafe.
I was the Dundee Dell kitchen manager 2003 to 2007. I started to promote more from-scratch preparation . soups made everyday, meatloaf, more home-style cooking. I had a phenomenal crew. Mary Hink, who's the kitchen manager now, is carrying that on.
Q. You have a big, varied menu at Agave?
A. We set out to be a Latin American place. I wanted to bring to Omaha something that we can recognize, prepared a little differently than in the past.
We have dishes from New Mexico and Arizona, North Mexico on the Pacific side, Mexico City, from the Yucatan Peninsula, Cabo . As times goes on we will have foods from more areas . the Caribbean, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Belize.
We started very intentionally focused on Mexico and the Yucatan. I think of it as translating authentic recipes to the Midwest.
Q. I have heard people praise your white salsa.
A. Our habańero salsa is creamy white. It looks white at a glance. It has a mild orange tint. Most people don't notice it because the walls are painted russet orange and terra cotta red.
It's got a lot of flavor. If you want to sweat through your meal, keep applying it. There's no cream in it at all. It's an emulsion of fresh vegetables, garlic, habańero and a few other seasonings.
Instead of having that jug of red (salsa) on the table, we give you a choice of salsas.
Q. What should people be sure to try when they visit Agave?
A. Our pork carnitas are the most authentically prepared dish. It's pork shoulder, cooked on a slow simmer and shredded. We serve it warm with your choice of red or green chile, rice, beans and tortillas. It's absolutely delicious.
Our chile relleńo is our house special. It's crispy. It's not the typical egg-batter poblano (stuffed with cheese). It's wrapped up in pastry and fried. It comes out crispy. To top it, green chile and more cheese is divine.
Our steak burrito, smothered with one of the sauces. A bowl of the green chile is a vegan option. Any of our chiles on anything you eat. I'm very proud of those recipes.
The tomatillo salsa is delicious. I found the recipe around Mexico City. It's just to die for and has a great tartness. It goes great with eggs so we're getting prepared to open up for Sunday brunch.
Shrimp Alambres, pepper-filled, wrapped in bacon and char-grilled as in Puerto Vallarta.
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