[Pigging by Wilfrid: February 24, 2014]
Downtown New Yorkers know El Maguey Y La Tuna (The Agave and the Prickly Pear: forget the fish). They should know it, anyway, as the only long-established option for actual, regional Mexican food on the LES.
Now before you get all pedantic on me, yes, there's old El Sombrero on Stanton Street (rumored to be closing, but I don't think closed yet). But that place really led the pack of Dominican-run diners serving Mexican/TexMex stomach-lining to the local bar crowd. And there's a place for that.
El Maguey--although it can get loud when there are parties, soaking up the tequila--is an entirely different proposition. And, as I heard when invited to dine there recently, it has plans to highlight its home-cooking strengths. "The International House of Mole" will, said co-owner Maria Luisa Cortez, be the new tag; and the plan is to rearrange the menu to clarify the range of mole sauces available for pairing with your chosen entrée.
A guided tour of some of these carefully made, intricately flavored sauces followed some appetizers and a medium-sweet guava margarita. The guiding was done by a friend of the family and professional storyteller M. Antonio Olmos.
Some ingredients in El Maguey's cuisine are imported; some, I'm sure, can be found at Essex Street market nearby, including nopal. Now nopal is prickly pear. Wait, what about tuna? Well strictly the tuna is the fruit of the plant.
Okay, but what does it taste like? Texture firm and smooth--like giant green beans, al dente, I guess. It seemed to have been marinated in something which gave it a mildly pickled edge. Served with avocado, tomatoes, red onions, and lettuce.
This was good, tender tripe, but the merit of the soup lies in the broth--smoky, peppery, with a slow, gentle burn. A good hangover cure, said Olmos--and indeed any spicy food is likely to be of some help, thanks to the endorphin release it provokes. No need to wait for the hangover, though.
The main event, the moles, prepared downstairs by Maria's mother, Manuela Cortez (from recipes handed down by her mother). Availability is dependent on ingredients, but always expect to see the classic mole poblano, named for the state of Puebla, where the family traces its roots.
Three sampled here: chicken enchiladas with mole poblano, braised pork with green mole, and chili relleno with chili mole. The photos may show three thick sauces, but they were easily differentiated on the palate. The poblano has a bass-note of chocolate; it contains some twenty other ingredients, doubtless including a variety of hand-ground dry peppers, but nobody's saying.
The green mole was thinner, lighter, and had a more direct, fresh chili pepper flavor. The chili mole, not as sweet as the poblano, is made with five peppers. It too was a lighter sauce, and spicier than the poblano too. Red mole and the black mole from Oaxaca are also regularly available.
Really, these dishes are all about spooning up the sauce--but what about the other components. The chicken enchilada was fine, the pork predictably tender: it was the stuffed chili which, to my surprise, blew me away. I am not a big chili relleno eater, but this was crammed with firm queso blanco and delicately battered.
Now you can call this a banana piñata if you like--and no, we weren't allowed to hit it with baseball bats--but if it looks like an empanada, and eats like an empanada. Anyway, stuffed with molten bananas it was, with a triple threat ice cream on the side.
Finally Mexican coffee, sweet and spicy (but I don't mean spicy hot). Vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg were the suspects, but I don't have the secret.
So there's El Maguey, rethinking itself for the next ten years. And if any readers thought it was just another place to grab a taco after a session at Parkside Lounge, this has been a public service announcement.