Sitting in the shadows of Mission San Juan Capistrano, the former demonic playground of the Catholic order, lays the modest white stucco, red tiled, food sanctuary El Maguey. While the mission holds secrets of self-mutilating priest and unspeakable horrors El Maguey, since 1986, has been serving up food of resistance. In contrast to many South Orange County Mexican restaurants that choice to appease colonial Gringos with subpar food, El Maguey is in your face good. For far too long I have driven past this modest looking restaurant without realizing the food utopia that lay inside. But all that changed on a rainy Monday afternoon.
When I first walked in the décor did not blow me away but I have never been one of those fascist OC housewives that judge things on their appearance. Three white arches cut the restaurant in half and various Aztec statues along with a few Frida Kahlo images hung from the walls, while, the flowing air from the ceiling duct kept me looking outside in anticipation of a downpour.
Continuing with the modesty theme the menu had combination plates, burritos, tacos and tortas. But what caught my attention was the seafood items that came with the warring; the fish takes a while to cook, good food takes time. Prices were a bit high but I ordered with as much variety as my funds allowed.
After a brief wait the food came out. I started with the tongue taco, which was filled with half-inch blocks of tongue. As I picked up the taco the juiciness made me worried the delicate but firm corn tortilla would burst open but I was pleasantly proven wrong. The buttery meat, along with the hint of tomatillos, roasted corn, tangy onions and lime created the perfect bite. My heart skipped a few beats as I continued to enjoy the best tongue taco this side of Ensenada.
My attention then shifted to the fried fish with garlic sauce. I usually avoid fish from low-key Mexican restaurants but after this, I am rethinking that position. The fish, less than an inch thick had a nice golden crust that was strewn with bits of brown garlic pieces. I squeezed on a lime and took a bite. To my surprise the seared crust did not dry the fish out and its flakey texture, along with hints of baked garlic assured me I had picked a winner. I then wrapped up, in a small piece of flower tortilla—the flower tortillas had the homemade almost burnt marks on them—, some fish, lettuce and a splash of lime. The crisp, fresh, non-fishy bite would have made an Aztec emperor proud. This dish was truly the real deal, but there was still work to be down.
Next up was the chicken mole. As with the other dishes, the non-pretentious presentation masked the simplistic complexity of the dish. On several occasions I have experienced moles in which sweet cinnamon chocolate dominated the sauce, but not with El Maguey’s. Not one of the many spices were overpowering and the broth kept the sweet thickness in check. To my amazement, the rice that accompanied the dish had an herb broth flavor. Again I turned to the flower tortillas and started creating mini chicken rice mole tacos with lettuce. Goddame it was good.
At last it was time for the El Pastor taco. The fire red coating on the pork gave me the impression it would be dry. But after adding lime and the spicy table salsa the taco was ready to go. The crunchy, almost burnt texture of the pastor along with a subtle citrus spice confirmed I had gone four for four. After I finished the taco I ate all the remaining little burnt pieces that lingered on my plate.
Catholic priest often tell practitioners they must wait till death to experience heaven but those priest have not eaten at El Maguey. The tacos, fried fish, and mole all exceed my expectations and I left the restaurant feeling victories.