NEW BAR Octavio Diaz stands before the new redwood bar at his Agave Restaurant in Healdsburg. (Photo by Christian Kallen)

By Christian Kallen

There’s a new bar in town. Not really new—it’s made from a 250-year-old redwood tree sustainably harvested in Humboldt County, and it has a certificate to prove it. The bar is wide and smooth, its line edge the rough organic contours of the tree it came from.

And it’s not in a new restaurant, but a long-standing Healdsburg favorite—the Agave Restaurant in Vineyard Plaza. “It’s a very eclectic piece of art for me. I like to support art,” said Octavio Diaz, the owner of Agave.

Diners who came into Agave Restaurant this week, after it was closed over the holidays, found a remodeled front room, with most of the tables and chairs removed to the second room to give space for the new bar.

“It smells good,” said Diaz of the bar. “All the lines that it has through there, it makes me think of what that tree had to go through in life. It makes us think, are we going to be good people, or not?”

Kitchen Brothers 

Deep thoughts for a restaurateur, but Octavio Diaz, now 49, has long proved himself to be as much a visionary as a chef. From the beginning he focused Agave on mezcal, the smokey spirit made from the same cactus that gives the world tequila. That, and the spicy Mexican sauce known as mole, have become the signature flavors of much Mexican cuisine in Healdsburg, thanks in significant measure to Octavio Diaz and his younger brother, Pedro.

Pedro Diaz, 48, took over the Farolito Restaurant in 2006 after working in the kitchen there for several years. It was renamed as Gallina d’Oro this past year (128 Plaza St.). He, too, is ambitious and a skilled advocate of the cuisine of Oaxaca, the central Mexican state where both mezcal and mole originated.

While Pedro opened Windsor’s El Gallo Negro (8465 Old Redwood Hwy) several years ago, brother Octavio had a more ambitious expansion in the works, an upscale restaurant in the East Bay called Agave Uptown. Premiering in the summer of 2016 as an entry in Oakland’s “buzzy dining scene” just a block from the Paramount Theater, Agave Uptown drew favorable reviews and positive response. But it was a lot of work, and Diaz recently withdrew from daily operations. (Agave Uptown is still open at 2135 Franklin St., Oakland.)

IN THE KITCHEN Octavio Diaz is ‘100% back’ in the kitchen of the Healdsburg restaurant he started in 2008. From left, Juana Morelos (Alejandro Preciado behind her, obscured), Natanael Sanchez and Diaz.

“I was there for seven years,” said Diaz. “It’s a wonderful place, a beautiful, very community-oriented restaurant, just like it is in Healdsburg.”

Yet managing two restaurants and serving as executive chef at each took a toll. “But, you know, driving for seven years, we get tired,” Diaz said. “So I thought maybe I need to take a step back and spend more time in Healdsburg.”

The Diaz brothers also run Casa del Mole at 434 Center St., a robust Mexican mercado with fruits, vegetables, sundries, a meat counter, a small-dish restaurant and a kitchen—where their mother’s signature Mole Diaz Bros. de Oaxaca is made for in-house and commercial distribution, and of course available in 16-ounce jars.

Secret Recipe 

The fragrant sauce is made from 20 fresh ingredients, delicious on enchiladas or baked chicken (or, seasonally, turkey), and Diaz is quick to point out it’s vegan and gluten-free. But the recipe, he says, is still his mother’s secret. “She hasn’t shared it with us,” he said. “So I’m still trying to be the nicest kid …” He breaks into a wide grin.

The mole his mother makes is mole negro, “the king of moles in Oaxaca” as Diaz pronounces it—which includes chocolate, chili peppers, onions, garlic and more. But it’s just one of several styles of mole that is used in Mexican cooking. “There are eight different regions in Oaxaca, and eight different moles,” Diaz said.

So with the expansion of the dining area and the new, longer bar, Agave Healdsburg is expanding, too, its mole menu. Two new moles now appear on the menu: mole coloradito, built around cinnamon, allspice, cloves and cumin seeds, and the earthy mole pipián, which includes pumpkin seeds, sesame and peanuts.

But different mole calls for different dishes, which Diaz will introduce in the coming months. “I think that people are ready for more moles,” he said. He’s considering a vegetable dish with white rice, the return of a fresh fish dish called branzino and maybe something with scallops.  

“There’s a lot of things that go with mole,” he said. “It’s more of a sauce that goes with everything, but every time I use that for any meat or protein, it makes me think of my childhood, where I was born in Oaxaca.”

The location of Agave in the Vineyard Plaza makes it a bit off the beaten path for the gastronomes who frequent the Plaza area. But there’s something happening at this end of the shopping center: Two doors away is Starbucks, next door is Mambo’s Pizza and next to that is Bollywood Kitchen, both recent entries in Healdsburg’s food scene.

Diaz calls it a “foodie corner” at Vineyard Plaza.

“When we are all cooking, it’s like a machine of three different flavors,” he said. Plans are afoot to have live music in the common area on weekends, “just to bring more people and enjoy a beer outside on the patio. Maybe a bottle of wine. 

“If they can order Bollywood, Mexican food and pizza, and everybody’s sitting at the same table, how cool would that be?”

After his seven years of divided attention, Diaz declares himself “100% back.” With the  family food scene of the “foodie corner” and his renewed focus on the flavors of his native Oaxaca, he longs for a more personal connection with the customer. 

“I always tell the team that service is really important; also creating that rapport with the customer, no matter who it is,” he said. “Because the service industry has been suffering for the last three or four years since Covid. The service is not there in some places I go eat. And I don’t want that in my place. 

“I want it to be the place that we used to be before Covid. It’s energetic. The people are happy. It’s noisy, it’s loud. The food smells great. It looks good! I mean, it all comes together.”

Agave Restaurant is located at 1063 Vine St.; hours 10am to 9pm daily.

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Christian Kallen has called Healdsburg home for over 30 years. A former travel writer and web producer, he has worked with Microsoft, Yahoo, MSNBC and other media companies, usually in an editorial capacity. He started reporting locally in 2008, moving from Patch to the Sonoma Index-Tribune to the Kenwood Press before joining the Healdsburg Tribune in 2022.


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