El Maguey Y La Tuna: The Lower East Side's House of Mole

El Maguey Y La Tuna: The Lower East Side's House of Mole

El Maguey Y La Tuna won’t win any prizes for its homey décor, but its food is four-star all the way. And food—rich, rustic, traditional Mexican fare from the state of Puebla—is what drives diners to the family-owned and run storefront that is located way, way east on Houston Street. Getting there may be a schlep, but it’s a trip worth taking.

The joy of travel, even if it’s only in your own city, is the discovery of new things, like pancita, a spicy tripe soup, known as hangover soup. Stomach lining has never been my first choice of what to put into my stomach, but at El Maguey—what the hell?—tender morsels swim with tortilla pieces in a smooth chickeny broth. The trick is to season the soup generously, adding onions, dried oregano and lemon to taste. You mill the oregano with your hands. There’s definitely a ceremonial aspect to dining here, but absolutely no fuss and feathers. While I can’t vouch for pancita as a hangover cure, not having any to take home with me for the morning after, I can say that, through a pleasantly fuzzy alcoholic haze occasioned by the second (in quick succession) jalapeño margarita, I could easily imagine its efficacy as a cure.

El Maguey prides itself on its moles, calling itself, with justification, “the house of mole.” All moles—poblano, chile, negro, rojo and verde—are made in-house. Shortcuts are neither taken nor allowed. Mole poblano, for instance, takes two days to prepare and is created to the letter from a grandmother’s recipe handed down from generation to generation. I tried enchiladas filled with chicken and rolled in mole poblano, followed by pieces of pork simmered in green mole sauce, followed by (because you can never have too much or enough mole) a chile relleno roasted and stuffed with cheese, simmered in tomatoes and finished with a five-chile mole topping. One word sums up all three: delicious. A banana piñata (banana-filled pastry with vanilla ice cream) is a sweet way to end a feast.

What lingers in the memory, apart from the food, is the warmth of the Cortez family’s welcome and their eagerness to please. As to value for money, lunch entrées peak at $10, those at dinner at $17. Brunch, a daily affair, is a steal at $11.95. Brooklynites will remember El Maguey from its Williamsburg days, 1992-2001. It’s been a Lower East Side fixture since 2003. Here’s to many more decades. As to the name, there’s nothing fishy about it: It translates to “The Tequila/Mezcal and Prickly Pear Plants.”

» El Maguez Y La Tuna, 321 E. Houston St., btw Ave. B & Attorney St., 212.473.3919