The great taqueria test 


Taqueria el Maguey answers a critic’s quandary

Place a food critic at a dinner party and the table will take him for every tip in his book. How do you remember everything without taking notes? How do you avoid getting caught? Can you really say one restaurant is better than another? By dessert, even the most confident of critics can second guess all the stars he’s ever given out.

When it comes to favorites — not just what they are but how you discern them — well, your dinner companions expect nothing short of a point-by-point system for saying, without question, where the best food is and will always be. Take Mexican. People always ask me my favorite Mexican restaurant and what makes it the best. They want to know the one place, given the worst day and no pressure to review, I would point the car toward, convinced that neither the car, nor the restaurant’s kitchen, would steer me wrong.

The trouble is, in a city with nearly 150 Mexican restaurants, not counting Taco Bells, there’s no single answer to that question. Many solid places have gone out of business, yielded to American tastes or are so variable they’ve disappointed as much as delighted.

But if you asked me lately, I’d say it’s Taqueria el Maguey, tucked into one of the homelier strip malls on West 38th. To the untrained eye, it’s no different from other Mexican joints around town. Maybe it was luck, maybe some tried and true tips. Maybe I’d seen enough Mexican restaurants to ask the right questions. Whatever the reason, I got the right answers, as well as a new favorite taqueria.

No hablamos inglés?

Surely the fact that a restaurant’s staff speaks almost no English isn’t enough to ensure a good meal. Neither is the corollary true: Plenty of undeniably flavorful Mexican, Tex-Mex and Mexican-“style” food comes from places where no Spanish is uttered. Of course, the most honest-to-goodness Mexican fare derives from people who can pronounce the ingredients. But I’m no authenticity snob. At Taqueria el Maguey, there’s no fuss over language. Waitresses know almost no English; you need not know Spanish. No awkward stares, cross looks or guilt over sleeping through high school Spanish class. Somehow you get fed — mostly with what you ordered. Your bill comes eventually. Everyone smiles. On one occasion, our broken Spanish drew a manager from a nearby table to translate. We appreciated his helpful recommendations, but pointing could have worked as well.

One warning: Get the Mexican guacamole, not the “dip.” It’s the difference between chunky, fresh guac and Martian goo.

Check those bathrooms?

Do spiffy digs connote care or does a hole-in-the-wall one citation short of being condemned translate into “true” ethnic eats? The décor at el Maguey is certainly nothing special. Vivid salmon-colored walls with requisite cheery bric-a-brac make a neutral backdrop for dining. Bathrooms have recently been cleaned. Telenovelas cast their arch sensually across the dining room. But the regulars, and there are many, are in for the food.

Strangers from the kitchen?

To certain foodies, the measure of a great cuisine is how many body parts it allows you to consume. Do you favor kidneys or liver? Hooves? Sure, you can get tongue and tripa (intestines) at el Maguey, but this isn’t the place to emulate Anthony Bourdain. Nor does it pander to American palates. Thankfully, the menu at el Maguey is so streamlined you can try it all in a few visits. Feel free to bypass fajitas and share smaller items on the back page. Not surprisingly, tacos ($1.50) are excellent here, especially the “pastor” with caramel-colored roasted pork and bits of pineapple. “Alambre” have tender beef with bacon, green peppers and a perfect hint of melted cheese. It’s your school cafeteria taco after it studied abroad.

The universal language of the tongue

While tastes vary across the globe, surely delicious food transcends language. Save for lackluster beans, rice and that “dip,” everything here was deeply flavorful without searing the mouth. Chorizo was a rich choice for a gordita ($2.50), but this was anything but “little” (as the name suggests) with two super-thick tortillas and tons of tasty toppings. A small guarache ($2.50) is a flat, oval tortilla (“guarache” means “sandal”) loaded with beans and veggies. We got ours with some of the smokiest, most charred carne asada around. Chicken empanadas ($1.75) are straightforward with a thinner crust than some but more stuffed than many. Las Tres Marias ($7.95) offered three enchiladas with plenty of juicy grilled chicken and a judicious amount of salsa verde, guacamole and sour cream. Even flan ($1.50), though smothered in chocolate syrup and aerosol whipped cream, was thick and creamy with a dark caramel sauce.

Word on the (e)-street?

I have to thank a number of Internet sources for tipping me off to this place. Kudos go to “brain girl” at Feed Me/Drink Me and Christine at “My Plate or Yours” Their bully pulpits may have smaller audiences than mine, but their palates are no less discerning. Gracias, amigas!

Taqueria El Maguey
5629 W. 38th St.

Monday-Thursday: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Friday-Sunday: 10 a.m. to midnight

Food: 4 stars
Atmosphere: 2.5 stars
Service: 3 stars


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