There’s no question that El Maguey y la Tuna was a low dive. Located on a seemingly ungentrifiable block of Williamsburg’s Grand Street, it featured a makeshift counter at the front where an affable guy assembled tacos and dispensed brews. Weekdays he’d be surrounded by laborers enjoying a dinner of beer, beer, and more beer. Every so often a weary head would sink to the table with a dull thud. On weekends there’d be a keyboard player belting songs at earsplitting volume, while families scarfed chilate—a fiery chicken soup that left you mopping your brow. The best part of the decor was the wallpaper, which endlessly repeated pictures of el maguey and la tuna, the twin cacti of the restaurant’s name. Though tuna is Spanish for prickly pear, the word is also used to describe someone leading a life of dissipation. We loved El Maguey in those days, and we were plenty La Tuna ourselves. The chow was always good, and sometimes astonishingly so. In its ninth year, El Maguey was only sporadically open, and my pals and I often traipsed over to find it shuttered.
Pedaling down East Houston a couple of weeks ago, I nearly fell off my bike when I spotted a spruce storefront emblazoned El Maguey y la Tuna. Could it be the same place? One taste of the mole ranchero ($9.95) confirmed it—a half-chicken gobbed with a gritty red sauce that deserves a place among the city’s culinary wonders. Associated with Puebla and Michoacán, it employs two flavorful dried chiles—the guajillo and the costeño—trading licks in the sauce like heavy-metal guitar gods.
A few other dishes retain the same Grand Street flair. The tongue tacos ($6.95 for two) are crammed with strips of rich sensory tissue cooked into complete submission. The new version is actually better, since the tortillas are now homemade—richly tasting of earth and maize. Mole poblano continues to excel, slightly smoother and more chocolaty than other examples around town. It’s best experienced on chicken ($11.95), a half-bird accompanied by rice and beans. The best thing on the menu is still chiles rellenos ($10.95), a pair of dark green poblanos stuffed with cheese and smothered in tomato sauce.
Despite the continued excellence of certain dishes, it was clear to a bunch of regulars that convened at the new joint one summer evening that there was now a certain—how shall we say it—restraint in the menu. The chiles had largely disappeared from many dishes, and there was a tendency, as Marisa delicately put it, to “dump meat into everything.” When the salsa arrived with the welcoming basket of chips, it was pure crushed tomatoes. We asked them to bring us a hotter version, but it wasn’t hotter by much. And the same tameness applied to other items, from the huevos rancheros to the multiple versions of nachos. When I asked a passing employee why the food was so bland, the reply was: “We had to do it because of the neighborhood.”
Isn’t it ironic, we pondered, that just as McDonald’s is tossing some serious chiles into the burritos at its subsidiary Chipotle, and just as Bobby Flay is seen caressing chiles on seemingly every TV station, and just as salsa has replaced ketchup as the national condiment—our local Mexican hang is banishing chiles?