If you’re ever ambling down Houston Street on the Lower East Side and craving some authentic rustic Mexican food, make sure to slow down once you hit Avenue B.
El Maguey y La Tuna is a tried and true New York City restaurant representing the soul of Mexican cooking and the drive of New York hustlers. Originating in Williamsburg in 1992 (before Williamsburg was what it is today), El Maguey y La Tuna relocated to the Lower East Side in 2005 after a fire engulfed the Brooklyn location. Owned and operated by Executive Chef Leonidas Cortez and his lovely daughter Maria, El Maguey has become a neighborhood gem in the heart of another rapidly developing center for all things cool in New York City.
The Cortez family hails from Puebla, a rural state in Mexico, and the menu is comprised of recipes passed down through the generations. Refusing to adapt to American shortcuts such as a blender, Maria’s mother Manuela spends anywhere from one to three days in the basement prep kitchen stirring the moles, what El Maguey y La Tuna is known for. The family prefers the old school way of preparing their most beloved dishes, the way their abuela instructed them. There mole list is extensive, and each has its own distinctly memorable characteristic: poblano, verde, negro, adobo, and 5 chili. Due to the laborious process of making a mole, it is not an everyday Mexican dish, and we definitely felt the love that went into each of the moles we consumed.
The green mole, made from tomatillos with just a hint of spice, was our favorite, and we asked Maria to kindly leave it on the table throughout our meal so we could put it on everything. The Cortez family is very particular about their ingredients, going as far as importing the important ones from Mexico in order to honor their commitment to authenticity.
Our favorite dish, and one we highly recommend running to El Maguey y La Tuna immediately for, was the Chili Rellenos. If you are not familiar, chili rellenos is a roasted poblano chili pepper stuffed with queso blanco, a cheese similar in texture and consistency to ricotta. The whole thing is slightly battered and then drenched in a homemade tomato based mole. It’s like sinking your teeth into Mexican lasagna, smoky and peppery and cheesy and delicious.
The growing population of Mexican immigrants in NYC has allowed for market saturation not only in Mexican restaurants and taquerias but in the availability of rarer, fresher ingredients, such as the queso blanco used in the chili rellenos recipe. The ubiquitous presence of Mexican cuisine has also diluted the different aspects of regional dishes, and the Cortez family has had to adapt as a result.
After numerous requests by their regular customers (who mostly hailed from California), they added fish tacos to the menu, a dish you would never encounter in the inland Puebla state. Adhering to local trends, they have added a brunch menu to their repertoire. Brunch is available Tuesday-Sunday, and for just $11.95 you can score a brunch entrée, such as the magnificent chilaquilles, which we sampled, as well as a cocktail, making it an enviable deal.
Throughout their many years as proprietors, The Cortez family has proven that they are capable of evolving as a local establishment and a New York staple, and have erected themselves in the precarious business of the restaurant industry, where closings are frequent and success is challenging.
To pay homage to this classic, rustic restaurant, visit the Cortez family at their cozy and intimate Lower East Side out post.