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Sago Modern Mexican
Modern, Mexican, refreshingly different

By Dale Rice
Photography by Larry Kolvoord

Mexican cuisine offers an immense amount of room for putting new twists on an old staple, but few restaurants in Central Texas take chances with south-of-the-border cuisine. Most stick with the classics.

That's why I'm thrilled that Sago Modern Mexican has entered the local dining scene. This new restaurant in The Triangle residential and commercial development in North Central Austin spins Mexican cuisine in many directions, and each dish I tasted was a success.

The forces behind Sago are Chase Jones and Shawn Selby, who operated Portabla on West Sixth Street. Jones and Selby sold that business in August and put their energy into the new space.

"We have a modern take on regional Mexican classics," Jones says.

A great example of that inventive approach is Sago's version of a chile relleno. Instead of a stuffed pepper that has been battered and fried, this one follows the "deconstruction" trend that is popular with many cutting-edge chefs.

Here, the fried element is a made-from-scratch corn tortilla that serves as the base for a roasted pepper that has been split and stuffed with a robustly flavored mix of chicken, onions, tomato, asadero cheese and chipotle-guajillo sauce. The pepper ($10.95) is accompanied by beans (a choice of charro or black) and cilantro-honey rice that is unlike any rice I've had in a Mexican restaurant.

That rice also plays on the plate of cheese enchiladas ($9.95), which are made with corn tortillas and filled with a blend of three cheeses: mozzarella, asadero and cheddar. The enchiladas are topped with a creamy tomatillo sauce that packs a zesty punch. That tomatillo sauce is made with chile de arbol, Jones says, with a goal to "kick up the cheese enchilada, which sometimes can be boring." Amen.

That's where the sweetened rice comes in. "We're more aggressive with seasoning than most places," Jones says. "You get a sweet, clean taste from the rice, which balances the heat. It's the balancing act with our rice that we wanted to pull off."

The beginning of the meal at Sago brought two delicious, well-seasoned dishes. The ceviche ($6.95 for the small, $8.95 for the large), a combination of citrus-marinated tilapia, jicama, avocado, jalapeno, onion, cilantro and mango, was more of a slaw version of the classic fish item. The mini pork gorditas ($5.95) featured a half-dozen golden corn empanadas filled with pork shoulder, cheese and onion.

Dessert wrapped up with more appealing twists on traditional fare. The plate of small sopapillas ($2.50) was dusted with cinnamon and drizzled with agave nectar in place of the usual honey. The "Mexican cheesecake" ($5.95) was much more akin to rice pudding than a traditional cheesecake.

The crust, made with Mexican cookies and chopped pecans, held a filling made with cream cheese and rice that had been cooked with sugar, vanilla and cinnamon that Jones says is designed to "play off the traditional Mexican rice pudding." It was served with a caramel sauce that had a deep flavor, the result of adding espresso and Kailua to it. It all made for a great dessert; the only change it needs is in the name.

Service at Sago, which features a contemporary, brightly colored interior and a lovely patio for outdoor dining, was attentive and friendly.

With a modern cuisine to match its setting, Sago ought to be a destination for anyone who loves Mexican fare and appreciates a creative twist on the classics.

Austin Chronicle

Sago Modern Mexican
What's Cooking at The Triangle
By Kate Thornberry
Photography by John Anderson

Sago claims to be unique and modern in its approach to both Tex-Mex and Interior Mexican cuisine, and that's a justified claim. From the moment you taste the table salsas, your expectations begin to climb. The red table salsa has a fire-roasted tomato, guajillo, and pasilla red-pepper base - slightly offbeat and very good. The green table salsa is, in a word, magnificent. Sweet yet sour, hot yet mild, as only a perfect roasted-tomatillo salsa can be. The tortilla chips are fresh-fried and of such a high quality that you have to restrain yourself from making a meal of chips and sauce alone. Everything at Sago is made on the premises. Though the menu is light on vegetarian options, it is inventive and, like the red salsa, offbeat: Appetizers include gorditas, ceviche, yucca fritters, and baby back ribs, as well as the more traditional chile con queso and guacamole. The entrées are memorable and clearly demonstrate the skill of Chef Chase Jones, an ambitious chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. I had the chipotle chicken stuffed poblano ($10.95), recommended by my server. A layered deconstruction of chile relleno, the dish featured a fresh-roasted poblano pepper, fully cooked yet still firm, filled with spiced white chicken, balanced on a layer of cilantro-honey rice with a fried corn masa cake layered in between, adding a divine, crunchy texture. Absolutely fabulous. The cheese enchiladas ($9.95), made with mozzarella, asadero, and cheddar, were also fantastic: fresh, garlicky, and not remotely greasy, topped with a creamy roasted-tomatillo sauce.

Sago does breakfast as well as lunch and dinner, and the menus for each meal reflect a free-thinking mindset. Lunch features Mexican panini such as the Havana (sliced pork loin, pickles, mustard, sweet roasted garlic, and Swiss on ciabatta, $9.95) and entrée salads such as the Interior Shrimp (achiote-grilled shrimp with avocado, pumpkin seeds, cotija cheese, greens, onions, and red pepper, $9.95), as well as enchiladas and tacos. The enchiladas include beef brisket ($9.95) and pork shoulder ($9.95) options, and the tacos include fish ($8.95) and shrimp ($9.95) options.

The breakfast menu really cuts loose with items such as Spicy Salmon Cake Stacks ($9.95), where salmon cakes are placed on toasted English muffins and topped with poached eggs and chipotle hollandaise. Mexican French toast ($8.95) layers bananas and apples with goat's milk caramel and griddled challah French toast, and the Havana Breakfast places pork roast and Swiss on toasted baguette, with poached eggs and black pepper-asadero cheese sauce ($8.95). For the less adventurous, there are breakfast tacos and migas ($6.95). The prices are reasonable, the service excellent, and Sago boasts a full bar and specialty cocktails, as well.

Austin Monthly Dining Guide
Beyond the Menu

Sago Modern Mexican
New Triangle Eatery Off to a Great Start
By Terry N. Martinez
Photography by Vanessa Escobedo Barba

The name says it all: Sago Modern Mexican, emphasis on "modern." Everything at this restaurant, located at what some are calling the new restaurant row at The Triangle in Central Austin, is just that. From the hip décor that interior design guru Joel Mozersky dreamed up the clean and balanced flavors of the food to the fun (and sometimes fiery) cocktails, one trip to Sago and your Taco Bell drive-through days are past.

Chase Jones and Shawn Selby, former proprietors of Portabla on West Sixth Street, dreamed of opening a new restaurant that emphasized the kind of food that Jones, who attended the Culinary Institute of America, loves to cook. As executive chef, Jones has worked tirelessly to create dishes that are modern interpretations of Mexican classics like campechana and enchiladas.

As they modernize their dishes, the owners of Sago also seem to strive to make everything they do fresh and exciting. At least, that's the impression my dining companions and I get when we have dinner on the lush patio on a warm, breezy night. When we step into Sago, the striking interior immediately makes us smile. The main room is bright pink and orange with white booths to contrast. A tiled mirrored wall reminiscent of a disco ball sparkles in the bar area. Jones says he and Selby told Mozersky, "We wanna be hip and very much upscale but we want people to feel comfortable coming here." The patio, with its hanging plants and sunset view, makes diners feel they're in a tropical retreat.

It is in this frame of mind-relaxed, excited and festive-that my friends and I enjoy our meal. We begin with cocktails made with 100% blue agave tequila and sweetened with agave nectar, an idea Selby had because, as he puts it, why use simple syrup if you can find a by-product of agave and keep the flavors in the same family? La Toronja is a mixture of Herradura Silver Tequila, agave nectar and fresh pink grapefruit juice. The drink is crisp and refreshing and pairs remarkably well with Sago's two spicy, smoky salsas. One of my friends sips the Zarzarmora, made with Herradura Silver, Grand Marnier, blackberry juice and fresh lime. Another companion enjoys the signature Z-Best Martini, a combination of spicy flavor from muddled jalapenos, sweetness from agave nectar, salt from a jalapeno-stuffed olive and, of course, a kick of liquors from Z Tequila and Cointreau. "It started off as a spontaneous idea, and in our constant effort to make things well balanced, we tweaked it and twisted it until we got it to the point it is now," Jones explains.

We munch on the top-notch chips and salsas, made with roasted tomatoes and tomatillos, as we peruse the menu. Each morning, the cooks at Sago make fresh batches of these intensely flavored sauces that Jones says customers constantly rave about.

Next come our appetizers of yucca fritters and ceviche. The ceviche's balance of crisp jicama, sweet mango, large chunks of tilapia, creamy avocado and salty tortilla chips is a favorite for the entire table. Of course, we have to balance our healthy first course wit some yucca fritters. Yucca is a starchy potato-like root, and the version Sago fries up with cheese and serves with a spicy chipotle aioli is a sinful treat we can't gobble up fast enough.

I relish my entrée of roasted garlic-chipotle shrimp, a dish with eight plump crustaceans marinated in a mild mix of spices. All the shrimp needs is an extra squirt of lime juice to brighten up the flavors a bit. The entrée includes Sago's cilantro-honey rice, a sweet counterpart to the many spicy dishes we enjoy, and crisp roasted vegetables with a slightly charred, smoky flavor.

I also sample the campechana, an appetizer that a friend chooses for a lighter dinner option. The tomato-based poached seafood dish reminds me of gazpacho with chunks of red snapper, shrimp, avocado and the Mexican trinity: chile, tomato and onion. The fish is cooked to perfection and served with crunchy corn tostadas.

The grilled chicken Castro, glazed with a honey-pasilla sauce, is sweet, smoky and tender. It's a hearty portion, but not so much that it weighs me down. The side dish of poblano-cilantro mashed yucca is full of garlic and has a creamy texture. The brisket enchiladas are unlike any I have tried: the tender beef rolled in handmade corn tortillas and topped with a chipotle-guajillo sauce is tangy, sweet and very spicy.

We end our meal with some rather unusual takes on desserts that we enjoy, but that leave us a bit perplexed. The sopapillas, which are fried and topped with agave nectar and cinnamon, seem more like bunuelos-a sweet fried tortilla-to my friends and me, but we enjoyed them nonetheless and make sure to sop up the nectar with the crisp dough.

The Mexican cheesecake, filled with rice and topped with a cajeta, a goat's milk and caramel-espresso sauce, begs for and explanation. "It's a modified rice pudding that has cream cheese added at the end," Jones explains. The crust is toasted pecans, Maria's cookies, sugar, butter and cinnamon, formed to make a graham cracker-style crust. The name may change at some point, but for now he's content with the rice-less description. Despite the disconnect, people order it and like it, myself included. Perhaps I have a warm place in my heart for it because as a child I experimented by spreading cajeta on Maria's cookies to make a quick treat. Perhaps it's because it's yet another delicious example of Sago's ongoing mission to recreate Mexican classics.

"When people think of Mexican food, what do they think about?" Jones poses. "Enchiladas, things covered in cheese, and beans and rice, which is great. We have our own version of that as well, but there is also so much more to Mexico." Luckily, the owners of Sago are here to offer a new glimpse at what lies beyond the border.

Culinary Destinations

Sago Modern Mexican
By L. Ford

As a longtime fan of the fresh and flavorful salads and creative dinner entrees at Portabla, I was eager to visit the new venture of its former owners, Chase Jones and Shawn Selby, always the gracious hosts, nestled in a nook of the Triangle development. Sago's Joel Mozersky interiors are sleek and modern but also warm and inviting. Diners can sit in the brightly colored dining room or on the patio, filled with lush, tropical plants. We started with the ceviche-lime-and-orange-marinated tilapia tossed with mango, cilantro, red onion, jicama, seedless jalapeno, and avocado and served with corn tostadas. The starter was full of bold, clean flavors that carried through the entire meal. The roasted garlic-chipotle shrimp, one of the specialty entrees, boasted a nicely spicy sauce. The cilantro-honey rice and roasted veggies were a perfect pairing for a light, memorable entrée. The salsas, made each morning with fresh produce, are some of the best in town. Cocktail connoisseurs will appreciate that all margaritas are made with 100 percent Blue Agave Tequila, and the Z-Best Martini, served with muddled jalapenos in premium Z Tequila, Cointreau, and agave nectar, with fresh lime, doesn't disappoint either. The eatery also offers a unique brunch on weekends. Sago Modern Mexican delivers on its name and offers a delectable getaway from the typical Mexican meal.

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