Nothing warms the soul on a chilly February evening like authentic Mexican cuisine, and El Maguey y La Tuna offers diners an especially spicy, tasty respite in these cold times. Named after two desert plants, the agave (known for its use in the production of sweeteners and tequila) and prickly pear (an edible, fruity cactus), El Maguey Y La Tuna has nothing to do with fish and everything to do with the Mexican desert—a world more bountiful than most would imagine.
Located along East Houston, this father-daughter run restaurant has brought an authentic Mexican experience to Manhattan’s Lower East Side for over a decade. Leonides Cortez and his daughter Maria truly know the meaning of a good family meal, and it shows in their cooking, which consists of family recipes handed down through the generations.
Our first course was the cactus salad, a light, fresh palette cleanser with an exceptional cilantro dressing. Zesty and flavorful, I actually asked our server to let me keep it around for the rest of the meal. The cactus came with a firm yet juicy texture that added a refreshing sweetness to the salad.
The pancita came for our second course and it was by far one of the most interesting things I’d ever tried—a spicy chili pepper soup with chunks of beef tongue. Our server let us know that pancita is a popular hangover remedy in Mexico and after having a spoonful, I knew exactly what he meant. Between the fiery broth and sinewy, savory beef tongue, the soup made for an intense experience, leaving me alert and awake for the duration of my meal.
I tried the Enchilada al Maguey for my first entrée and it was easily the highlight of the meal for me. The morsels of tender chicken inside the pleasantly firm and sturdy tortillas were cooked and seasoned flawlessly. Simmered and marinated in one of the restaurant’s specialty mole sauces, I can honestly give it the distinction of the tastiest enchilada I have ever tasted. It’s going to be really hard for me to stomach any Tex-Mex attempts at enchiladas from now on.
El Maguey Y La Tuna prides itself on its homemade mole sauces, which are also handmade without the use of a blender or a food processer—something unheard of outside of Mexico. Most Mexican restaurants either import their sauces or take the easy way out with technology. Crafted by the hands of mother and sous-chef, Manuela Cortez, each mole sauce added something extraordinary to the restaurant’s main courses.
The Mole Verde Pork and Chile Relleno in Five Chile Mole proved that El Maguey Y La Tuna deserves the distinction of International House of Mole, a title our server told us the restaurant is in the process of attaining! My bite of boneless pork melted in my mouth, though not before leaving a pleasantly peppery impression from the surrounding mole verde. The Cortez family has truly mastered the art of crafting these mole sauces as well as pairing them with dishes.
Another favorite of mine, the Chile Relleno offered another authentic Mexican treat! A roasted chili pepper coated in a light batter and stuffed with fried cheese, El Maguey Y La Tuna’s version comes in a crimson mole sauce made from five different chili peppers. The mild, creamy cheese and red-hot sauce complimented each other well, making for a complex and yummy vegetarian dish.
After some decidedly spicy offerings, the restaurant demonstrated an equally satisfying command over sweetness with dessert. I sampled the Mexican Hot Chocolate and Banana Pinata, a fried empanada stuffed with ripe bananas and served with ice cream. El Maguey Y La Tuna uses these adorable mugs for its hot beverages and the rich, dark chocolate made me feel like an Aztec King. Warm and crunchy on the outside but chilled and fruity on the inside, the Banana Pinata rounded out the meal in a big way. El Maguey Y La Tuna really adds an ‘s’ to the desert!
Cozy and colorful, El Maguey Y La Tuna conjures the very essence of a pueblo village. Adorned with terra cotta floors and plates and all manner of desert imagery, one really feels like they have left Manhattan after sitting inside. El Maguey Y La Tuna also offers a wide selection of Mexican beers, wines, margaritas, and other specialty drinks. The Jalapeno Margarita and Maria’s Red Sangria are some customer favorites!
The experience is both casual and intimate, a popular dining spot for both families and couples. If you’re looking for some tried and true Mexican cuisine and you want the real deal, then El Maguey Y La Tuna is a budget and family friendly hot spot!
El Maguey Y La Tuna
Address: 321 East Houston Street Between Avenue B and Attorney Street
Phone: (212) 473 3919
Lunch from 10:30 AM to 4:00 PM
Dinner from 4:00 PM to 11:00 PM