Saturday, January 18, 2014

El Maguey y La Tuna: Authentic Mexican Food From Family Recipes at This Lower East Side Restaurant.

If you’re looking for authentic Mexican food in New York City, consider El Maguey y La Tuna, a cozy family run restaurant in the Lower East Side. The inside of El Maguey y La Tuna is designed to resemble a quaint Mexican village, decorated with ceramics and art from Puebla, Mexico. The menu features a wide variety of tempting cuisine, whether you prefer to stick to classics like jumbo stuffed burritos or “quick bite” quesadillas, or you want to branch out and try the more traditional Mexican-style “Especialidad de La Casa/House Specialty” varieties of mole sauce dishes (hint: branch out!). 

Mole Poblano at El Maguey y La Tuna
Although “Mole Poblano” may seem like a familiar option in a city inundated with Mexican chain restaurants, “mole” can mean so much more, and El Maguey y La Tuna keeps in mind that, within Mexico, moles are often reserved for special occasions such as weddings and other “fiestas.” As you’ll learn at El Maguey y La Tuna, with the correct combination of ingredients, blending chiles and spices, one can prepare a unique chocolate dark mole sauce (such as what’s used in “mole poblano”), a hot green mole, or a milder red mole, chipotle chile mole, and more, and you can find dishes highlighting each of these at the restaurant. What’s most interesting is that the same type of mole may vary slightly in taste depending on what region of Mexico the recipe is from. At El Maguey y La Tuna, many of their mole recipes date back generations, handed down from grandmothers to mothers to daughters. In fact, while Maria Luisa Cortez and her father manage the restaurant, Mrs. Cortez can often be found downstairs mixing fresh moles. This is a unique draw for El Maguey y La Tuna, as most other local restaurant order moles shipped from Mexico. As a result, each batch is special and you can really taste the blend of 20+ spices in the mole poblano or the 5 chiles used in the chile mole. No actual blenders are used and everything is mixed, made and mashed by hand, right down to the ground sesames used in the mole poblano sauce. 

WGINY recently attended a press dinner at El Maguey y La Tuna on a cold winter day and was delighted to be greeted with a cup of their warm apple cider, spiced up with a splash of rum, which was just enough to give the drink a kick, but not overpower it (cider also available with tequila). Moving on to appetizers, although it’s not currently on the regular menu, we sampled the spicy green mole sauce by way of soft corn tamales filled with pork. This was contrasted nicely with crispy, crunchy, finger-sized chicken flautas. Topped with creamy guacamole made in-house, the flautas were a perfect introduction to the rich family recipes that keep customers returning to El Maguey y La Tuna. Don’t be afraid to use your hands here. Most main dishes are served with black or red beans and rice, and can be accompanied by fresh corn tortillas, also homemade. The taste and texture of the tortillas reminded me of those I’d tried at a small panadería I visited while traveling in Guatemala, a country that shares a border, and some cuisine, with Mexico. 

Chicken Flautas with Guacamole and Pico de Gallo
Other notable house specialities included: zesty “Tacos de Pescado,” tilapia-based fish tacos, sauteed or fried with green mole sauce; traditional “Chile Rellenos,” described as roasted poblano peppers stuffed with cheese and simmered in roasted homemade tomato sauce; and the distinctive, if not lesser known, “Adobo,” a smoky Mexican delicacy consisting of tender pork marinated in a chipotle mole sauce made with garlic and cumin, among other spices. The Cortez family enjoys presenting cuisine from their own town of Puebla, but also prides themselves on preparing other regional Mexican cuisine. The “Tacos de Pescado,” for example, are more typically found in coastal towns, whereas Puebla is inland. Both the tacos and the “Chile Rellenos” are heartily made with a heaping of cilantro. The sweet, simmered tomato sauce on the rellenos is also based on a family recipe, and the soft queso blanco filling will certainly fill you up. If you’re looking for a vegetarian option, the “Chile Rellenos” are your best bet. Each chile is individually roasted, turned out, battered and fried, and the preparation process can take two hours. Don’t worry though, several batches are made fresh each morning so you won’t have to wait when you’re ready to eat. 

Chile Rellenos
As for drinks, El Maguey y La Tuna mixes up more than six varieties of margaritas, served frozen or on the rocks, and showcasing tropical Latin American fruits, such as guava, tamarind and papaya. Since the restaurant is known for its chiles, there’s even a fiery jalapeño margarita. Not a tequila fan? A lighter option might be the fruit-infused “Maria’s Homemade Sangria,” served red or white, and created by Maria Luisa Cortez herself. When you’re ready for dessert, it wouldn’t be a Mexican meal without flan, and the custard here is smooth and velvety and cooked just right. Try it with a side of café con leche. 

The lunch/dinner menu at El Maguey y La Tuna is available all day, but if you’re dining between 11am and 4pm, you may want to try the very reasonably priced Mexican Brunch menu. For $11.95, you can get Chilaquiles, Huevos Rancheros, Breakfast Enchiladas and other “comida típica,” accompanied by a rejuvenating beverage such as a Bloody Mary, Sangria, or Mexican Hot Chocolate.

If you hail from Williamsburg, you may recognize the name “El Maguey y La Tuna.” The restaurant first opened there in 1992 and was a neighborhood staple until a fire closed down the business in 2001. With a little reimagining, “El Maguey y La Tuna” moved to its new Lower East Side home in 2003. Presently, El Maguey y La Tuna is located at 321 E. Houston Street, between Attorney and Ridge Streets, and is open for brunch, lunch, dinner and drinks, Tuesdays to Sundays from 11am to 11pm. Neighborhood delivery is available (10% off for first-time customers with online promo code 4D3D0). El Maguey y La Tuna can also host private parties at the restaurant, and is available to cater your offsite party or event.

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