The search for authentic Mexican food in New York can easily end up being an epic quest, and oftentimes a fruitless one. Although there’s been a surge in upscale Mexican restaurants in recent years and there are certainly a few food trucks here and there, it’s still disappointingly difficult to find the middle ground: quality Mexican food at reasonable prices in a brick-and-mortar restaurant. Fortunately El Maguey Y La Tuna, an authentic Mexican eatery on the Lower East Side, has been consistently serving homestyle rustic Mexican food in a casual environment to regulars and newcomers alike for over 10 years.
While you’ll find all the familiar American favorites there—tacos, quesadillas, et cetera, the food here differs from typical representations of Mexican food in the U.S. What makes El Maguey Y La Tuna special are its family recipes; the food has some serious roots, and that groundedness makes all the difference.
Maria, who co-owns the restaurant with her father, is particularly proud of their mole sauce. The recipe for El Maguey y La Tuna’s signature Mole Poblano has been passed down through their family for generations, and they recreate the authentic flavor by keeping up the customary, painstaking two-day process of cooking the sauce with traditional equipment rather than using a blender. That exacting process is evident in the taste; the mole’s flavor is both complex and smooth, with a subtle and delightful kick of spiciness.
Fans of authentic Mexican food will enjoy El Maguey’s slightly spicy version of tamales with green mole sauce, as well as the crisp, fresh flautas with chicken, served with pico de gallo and guacamole. The chile rellenos, too, are not to be missed. Another labor-intensive dish, it’s hearty, filling, and beautifully flavored.
If you stick around for dessert, an order of El Maguey's truly divine flan with a steaming hot mug of Mexican café con leche—which is so wonderfully rich it doesn’t even need sugar--is the perfect cold-weather treat. To warm up with something a little boozier, the diverse selection of margaritas or hot cider with rum and tequila are smooth and satisfying.
While El Maguey doesn't quite have a "seen and be seen" atmosphere, New York has more than its fair share of restaurants that splurge on contrived ambience and skimp on good old-fashioned delicious food. When you’re looking for well-made, authentic Mexican food, good service, and no gimmicks, El Maguey is a delightful place for a cozy, intimate meal. It’s very popular for take-out and delivery, but is also a beloved neighborhood spot for dinners, birthday parties, and even weddings.
This is partly because of reliably great food, and partly because Maria makes sure that the employees she hires are dedicated to their work and actually like people, so as to avoid the frosty attitude many a New York server exhibits.
El Maguey y La Tuna is open for Tuesday through Sunday for lunch, dinner, and an $11.95 prix fix brunch, which includes a cocktail.
321 East Houston Street, New York, NY 10002