Hand-Made Moles from Puebla at El Maguey y la Tuna

Fish Tacos with Assorted Hand-Made Moles at El Maguey y la Tuna

It’s always a great day when you find a restaurant dish that is truly worth a trip. And so it was a great day when I found myself enjoying the mole poblano at El Maguey y la Tuna, a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant on the Lower-East Side.

Mexican hot cider served with tequila

I was at a press dinner held for a small group of food bloggers and other press, and all of a sudden the cameras had stopped clicking and the notes had stopped being scribbled. There were sounds of clinking silverware and contented sighs.

The mole had been made by hand over the course of days, following a secret family recipe that I am sure involves a long list of various kinds of chilies, nuts, seeds, spices, and Mexican chocolate.  It had a great combination of sweet and spicy, without too much of either one; just a fantastic, complex, rich flavor. The chunks of chicken it came with were secondary to the beautiful sauce.

Sitting across from me, the Restaurant Fairy boldly summoned a big bowl of it for us all to go after with spoons. The rest of the table murmured its approval.

Chicken with Mole Poblano

El Maguey y la Tuna is a family restaurant that serves small-town Mexican food from the region of Puebla, which the New York Times has called “the gastronomic capital of Mexico.” Since 1992, the Cortez family—Leonides, Manuela, and Maria Luisa—have been serving up home-style cuisine to happy customers, first in Williamsburg and now on the Lower-East Side.

The focus is on the moles: sauces that are made in the old fashioned way; by hand, without the assistance of modern equipment. The recipes have been passed down in the Cortez family for generations. Some of them take up to three days to prepare.

We tried a number of them, including a mole made with five kinds of chilies, which was served over chicken, and a comforting plate of chilaquiles, a traditional breakfast dish made of torn-up tortillas mixed with a green mole verde and served with scrambled eggs. They were all great—warm and complex—although none quite matched the mole poblano in flavor.

A Poblano Pepper Stuffed with Queso Blanco and Smothered in Spiced Tomato Sauce

The other star of the menu also had the name “poblano”: a giant poblano pepper, which was stuffed with mild queso blanco and smothered with a spiced tomato sauce. The pepper itself was very delicate and mild, giving the dish a flavor and texture similar to a good Mexican lasagna.

Jalapeño Margarita

Although fish tacos are not traditional in landlocked Puebla, the Cortez family added them to the menu as a concession to enthusiastic customers demanding their beloved Cal-Mex staple. They made them their own by topping the crispy fish with their hand-made moles. It is a different way to enjoy the sauces, applied lightly enough not to mask the flavor of the fish, but generously enough to contribute their unique flavors to a combination that works beautifully.

Drinks were competent and fun, including a good jalapeño margarita and a comforting hot Mexican cider, which came with large chunks of various kinds of fruit in it. An optional shot of tequila or rum was provided on the side to be poured in at the table.

We recently observed that Mexican food is on the rise in New York City, with taquerias serving more authentic offerings, often for a few bucks each. Since 1992, El Maguey y la Tuna has been offering a different kind of authentic Mexican cuisine; the small-town food of Puebla, made by hand in the restaurant’s basement according to generations-old family recipes.

El Maguey y la Tuna
321 E Houston St (between Attorney St. & Ridge St.)
Tel. (212) 473-3919

El Maguey y La Tuna on Urbanspoon

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