El Maguey y la Tuna Brings Mexico to New York City
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Any fan of the New York City culinary scene can probably agree that there is one category in which the Big Apple lacks: Mexican food. Chipotles decorate the city and various taquerias serve some pretty decent tacos, but authentic, home-style, and tasty Mexican food is not easy to come by.
Far east on Houston Street, rainbow woven curtains and festive lights call you into family-owned Mexican restaurant, El Maguey y la Tuna. Originally in Williamsburg, the 20-year old establishment moved to the Lower East Side in 2003, and has thrived with locals and those craving a bite of authentic Mexican salsa and tamales ever since.
The menu includes rustic, regional favorites, created from family recipes by husband-wife team Leonides and Manuela Cortez. Appetizers like flautas, crispy chicken taquitos with homemade pico de gallo and guacamole have that dangerously addicting quality that can very easily have you ordering a second round before you even finish your first frozen margarita.
Entrees range from the expected tacos, burritos, enchiladas, nachos, and fajitas-- all prepared flavorfully and with more than a hint of local intuition. But for a more memorable meal, focus on the house specialties, including five different types of completely homemade mole sauces, like the chocolate mole poblano, which Manuela spends days making by hand in the restaurant's basement. Other highlights include the chipotle-chile adobo sauce ("A recipe all women in Puebla need to master before they can get married," Maria says), and crispy, gooey chiles rellenos. Special occasions bring tamales from the kitchen, and the family is open to request by visitors who hail from or have sent time in Mexico, and crave food from other regions.
Good food in New York rarely comes cheap, but the prices at El Maguey seem almost incorrect—they’re practically giving away their delicious dishes, economically enough to easily make you a regular. Visit for the $11.95 Mexican brunch, which offers items like huevos rancheros and steak and eggs, with a brunch cocktail and cafe con leche.
Plans are in the works to start selling their renowned salsas and moles individually (regular customers already order the sauces for takeout and perhaps claim the homemade creations as their own...), so visit The Maguey y La Tuna and beat the salsa rush!
The Miracle of Maguey
It can get you drunk three different ways and it’s not your college boyfriend — moreover, the maguey (or agave) plant is used to actually treat syphilis, not cause it. A look at the humble maguey’s role in Aztec and Mexican life, past and present.
The maguey cactus, native to Mexico, is best known for its place in alcohol, specifically tequila, but it’s also eaten in a variety of ways, used to make fabric and clothes, and taken for medicinal purposes. Not a looker, this giant, spike-covered plant somehow made its way from desert cactus to unexpected star of ancient Aztec (and later Mexican) civilization, permeating food, drink, clothing, and health. On a recent visit to Mexico, I was reminded up close just how important maguey is, particularly where eating and drinking is involved.
At a family restaurant in Mexico City’s La Roma neighborhood, I was three-quarters of the way through a plate of lamb barbacoa tacos—the meat melting with each bite, disappearing, leaving only a trail of happy taste buds behind it—when I realized my brunch table had two maguey products on it. The meat, cooked in the traditional barbacoa style, is wrapped in the long, spiky leaves of the plant, before being buried in the ground for a smoky night, reappearing cooked to the point of no resistance, just in time for my brunch. The leaves lend their flavor, but also help tenderize the meat, producing the incredible structure (or lack thereof) of the meat in the tacos.
Barbacoa tacos. Photo: Naomi Bishop
Next to my plate was a glass of pulque. Like home-canning in Brooklyn, pulque is a tradition that went out of style (for anyone under the age of 70) before making a comeback with a new generation in Mexico City’s hot nightlife neighborhoods. The youngsters aren’t clamoring to drink the viscous beverage, which is somewhat sour when sipped plain, with their barbacoa, however. Instead, they hit new-style pulquerias, where bright murals on the wall match the brightly flavored pulque curado, or flavored pulque. “Remember that, like mezcal, not everyone likes [pulque], but if you give it an opportunity, it could be your new favorite beverage,” translates an online review for one of D.F.’s new pulquerias, El Nuclear. Browsing through further reviews, I see that a nearby bar specializes in a fellow maguey progeny, mezcal.
Pulque curado, from a pulqueria in Mexico City
Tequila is maguey’s most famous alcoholic avatar, and pulque perhaps its least well known. Somewhere in between lies mezcal. Unlike tequila (actually a form of mezcal itself, if we want to get scientific), which can be made only from the blue agave species and in and around the state of Jalisco, mezcal can be distilled from any type of maguey, anywhere. It is, however, a specialty of the state of Oaxaca. Mezcal, like pulque, is enjoying a reborn popularity, this time in the U.S., where cocktail lovers flock to its smoky flavor for added depth in drinks.
When you sip on mezcal in Mexico, you might follow a minor tradition and pour a sip out, in reverence to Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey plant and one of the Aztecan fertility goddesses. In an odd coincidence—or perhaps a testament to how advanced Aztec knowledge was—the maguey plant was also used to cure syphilis and gonorrhea. Its antibiotic properties, which we now know are the reason it worked to heal, were also used to treat wounds and other infections. Additional non-food uses of maguey include making it into rope and, even further down the production process, into clothes.
Mezcal, from a bar in Oaxaca
Nowadays, of course, the sippable and edible uses of maguey are far more popular, as commercial production of clothing and antibiotics has taken over. Mezcal is becoming the darling of mixologists around the world (there’s even a bar in New York City named Mayahuel), pulque caters to Mexico City hipsters, and tequila remains the quintessential shot of college students and the base spirit of every vacationer’s margarita. Agave nectar, produced from the same sap that’s used to make pulque, has recently become popular as an alternative sweetener in the U.S., most notably as a substitute for honey in vegan diets and for refined sugar in low-glycemic diets.
With the sap as sweetener, the leaves as meat tenderizer and flavoring, and the stalk (or at least the piña, its base) becoming mezcal, what becomes of the fourth part, the flowers? Those too are edible, though far less common: Outer leaves can be stewed and eaten, and the immature, unopened blossoms can be roasted or fried for snacks.
Back at my barbacoa table, it is striking how different the pulque in my glass and the meat in my tacos look and taste, despite sharing the same roots. Furthermore, the shot of smoky mezcal I take later that day resembles neither. Given the maguey’s intimidating spiky exterior, its sheer size (it will grow around 13 feet wide and six feet tall), and the fact that its surface is slightly irritating to skin, it’s a shock that anyone thought to eat the thing in the first place … not to mention create entire diets—nay, civilizations—around it.
The miracle of the maguey plant. PIN this to save for later!
About the author: Naomi Bishop is also known as the GastroGnome. Being a GastroGnome means not sitting idly on the front lawn of culinary cottages, but rather exploring the wide world of culinary creations.You can read more from the GastroGnome at www.thegastrognome.com and find her on Twitter @gastrognome.
Editor’s note: For more on these maguey products, as well as a host of other local dishes and drinks, please see our full Mexico destination section.
Want a peek inside a hipster-friendly Mexico City pulqueria? Watch this short video!
A Mexican Feast at El Maguey y la Tuna
The place can be easily missed whilst walking down Houston Street, but once you try the food at El Maguey y la Tuna you’ll understand why it’s one of the Lower East Side’s hidden gems. The authentic Mexican restaurant originally opened up in Williamsburg back in 1992, where it stayed until 2001 and reopened in its new location in 2003, where it is still going strong. The family-run establishment serves rustic regional Mexican dishes from family recipes, with a strong emphasis on their outstanding homemade mole sauces.
The small restaurant is typical of what you would find in a small Mexican village, complete with terra cotta floors, white tiled walls, fun streaming lights and pictures of Mexico adorning the walls. While you might think you know the origin of the name of the restaurant, think again. Translated, it refers to the mezcal plant and prickly pear cactus, both of which are indigenous to Mexico. Which makes a lot of sense considering mezcal is used to make tequila, the key ingredient in their awesome margaritas. In addition to plenty of margs, the restaurant serves sangria, Mexican beers, and has a full bar of liquors.
We started our evening off with the Jalapeño Margarita, which fired us up for the meal ahead. The margarita had a kick to it, but was not too overwhelmingly spicy. We began our meal with Cactus Salad, comprised of fresh cactus, lettuce, tomato, onion, and avocado with a cilantro dressing. I can’t say that I’ve ever eaten cactus before, so was excited to try it. The salad was great and the cactus had a good texture with a surprising taste, almost as if it had been pickled. The dressing really went well on the salad.
Next up was Pancita, a spicy tripe soup served with handmade tortillas, chopped onions and lime. Also known as a great hangover cure, this soup really perks you up. Following that we enjoyed Enchiladas al Maguey, which was comprised of homemade corn tortillas filled with chicken and rolled in their specialty mole poblano sauce. This dish was delicious and the sauce was incredible.
After that we sampled my personal favorite dish of the evening, Mole Verde Pork. This included tender pieces of pork simmered in green mole sauce. This sauce was just as good as the last and the pork was so tender, making for a real winner of an entree. We also had Chile Relleno with 5 Chile Mole, made with roasted poblano peppers stuffed with cheese and coated in a light batter, simmered in roasted tomato and topped with a mole sauce comprised of five dried aromatic chiles and spices. This was another enjoyable dish that was hard to stop eating. Additionally, each dish was served with a scrumptious plate of rice and beans. Through the course of the evening, we were able to try three of their different mole sauces, all of which were impressive and some of which take days to make! In fact, the restaurant is planning on bottling and selling some of their moles for retail and we can’t wait until they do.
Lastly, no meal is complete without dessert and we loved ours. The Banana Pinata was a banana-filled pastry topped with ice cream that was so gosh darn tasty. I’ve never had another dessert like it and I certainly will be back for more. I also tried another of their drinks called a Michelada. This consists of Mexican beer with lime juice, chile sauce and chile powder. It was fabulous and perfectly complements the entrees on the menu.
To cap off the evening, we were offered a choice of Mexican coffee or hot chocolate and obviously, I went for the cocoa. The drinks were served in the most adorable mugs I’ve ever seen and came out piping hot and was the perfect end to our dinner fiesta.
El Maguey y la Tuna is located at 321 E. Houston Street.
Twisted Talk: Have you been to El Maguey y la Tuna? What’s your favorite mole sauce? Discuss below!
Casa Tuna, Mexico City (Mexico) - Deals & Reviews
Offering free parking, a smoking area and a safe deposit box, Casa Tuna Mexico City is set close to Parroquia San Juan Bautista. The venue comprises 12 rooms. There are airport shuttles, laundry facilities and dry cleaning at the accommodation.
The hotel is 0.4 miles away from Centenario Garden and 1.7 miles from Insurgentes Theatre. The property is 6 miles from the center of Mexico City.
Casa Tuna offers access to Benito Juarez International airport, located 13 miles away.
The rooms of Casa Tuna include an individual safe, a coffee maker and a writing table. The rooms also come with kitchenware, a washing machine and glassware.
Eat & Drink
It serves a daily continental breakfast. Situated 300 feet from the accommodation Septimo and Los Danzantes Coyoacan serve a variety of food.
Extra facilities include meals, a special menu and a playroom for guests with children.
Making of a Mixtli menu
4 of 11 The Extremadura, Espana is the first course on the menu at Mixtli restaurant at 5251 McCollough. The restaurant is currently serving a menu of 10 courses that trace the route of Hernan Cortez from Spain into what would become the heart of Mexico. John Davenport, Staff / San Antonio Express-News Show More Show Less
5 of 11 Cortés’ conquest of Cuba is represented by black beans served on rice paper. John Davenport /San Antonio Express-News Show More Show Less
6 of 11 The Yucatan with pork belly (right) is the third course on the menu at Mixtli restaurant at 5251 McCollough. The restaurant is currently serving a menu of 10 courses that trace the route of Hernan Cortez from Spain into what would become the heart of Mexico. John Davenport /San Antonio Express-News Show More Show Less
7 of 11 The fourth course, the Villa Rica is Veracruz with fish, achiote, vanilla and berries. John Davenport /San Antonio Express-News Show More Show Less
8 of 11 Into the Woods, with manchego, chorizo and greens (the forest) is the fifth course on the Conquest menu. John Davenport /San Antonio Express-News Show More Show Less
9 of 11 The City of Dreams, Act 2, is the eighth course on the menu at Mixtli restaurant at 5251 McCollough. The restaurant is currently serving a menu of 10 courses that trace the route of Hernan Cortez from Spain into what would become the heart of Mexico. John Davenport /San Antonio Express-News Show More Show Less
10 of 11 The Intermezzo with hoja santa and lime granita is the ninth course on the Conquest menu. John Davenport /San Antonio Express-News Show More Show Less
11 of 11 The Conquest menu meal concludes with coffee and pot de crème. Photos by John Davenport /San Antonio Express-News Show More Show Less
&ldquoOn August 13, 1521, heroically defended by Cuauhtémoc, Tlatelolco fell into the hands of Hernán Cortés.
It was not a triumph or a defeat.
But rather the painful birth of the México of today.&rdquo
&mdashHistorical marker at Tlatelolco in Mexico City
O ver the course of Mixtli&rsquos 12 previous menus, owners Diego Galicia and Rico Torres transformed the Jalisco goat stew of birria into a tender lamb chop with chile guajillo and a dollop of oregano puree they evoked the rainforest of Chiapas with a tasting of sautéed wild mushrooms atop steam-covered moss and they lifted the Mexico City subway system into a subject of fine dining with tostadas made haute cuisine.
But this menu was different.
The menu asked a deceptively simple question: How do you tell the story of the conquest of Mexico in a series of dishes? The answer required months of research and years of building the culinary skills that would come into play to create what became known as La Conquista, or Conquest menu.
&ldquoFor every state, there are established recipes that we can reference,&rdquo Torres said. &ldquoIn this one, it was let the ingredients play and tell the story.&rdquo
In the days when Galicia worked in research and development for Taco Cabana, Torres had his own catering company and Mixtli was just a vague notion, the ideas for this special menu were gestating.
They continued to percolate as the duo transformed a one-time railroad car into a 12-seat restaurant, commissioned a table, installed induction cooktops and set up their ticket system for purchasing seats in advance.
Their restaurant, whose name means &ldquocloud&rdquo in the Aztec language of Nahuatl, combined ancient and modernist cooking techniques, and their cloud would travel every 45 days to explore different regions of Mexico. In their first few menus, as the cloud metaphorically traveled to Oaxaca, Chiapas and Jalisco, the idea for a Conquest menu still floated as a goal.
&ldquoIt was never a question of we&rsquore not going to do it. It was more, &lsquoHave we learned enough to encapsulate this kind of menu?&rsquo&rdquo Torres said. &ldquoIt was a very special menu, and we wanted to be ready for it.&rdquo
The menu finally began to take shape in May 2014, when Galicia, Torres and the other three members of Mixtli&rsquos team at the time traveled to Mexico City to experience the culture, cuisine and history. Galicia, a native of nearby Toluca, and Torres, an El Paso native who spent much of his childhood with family in Zacatecas, already knew Mexico. But this trip was about culinary research and exploration for the team, and it included dinners at high-end Pujol and Azul Condesa restaurants, many visits to street food vendors, a trip to the pyramids of Teotihuacán and plenty of time at the National Museum of Anthropology.
&ldquoWe knew we wanted to do something that clashed the cultures of the Spaniards and the Americans, but we had no clue what it was going to look like as far as a tasting menu,&rdquo Galicia said. &ldquoWe knew the ingredients: vanilla, cacao, corn, tomatoes. We knew pork, we knew the oils from Europe, but we didn&rsquot have a champion to carry these ingredients to the table. We were talking and then &mdash Hernán Cortés.&rdquo
La Conquista menu
Mixtli restaurant, 5251 McCullough Ave.
The Conquest series runs through Feb. 27.
Seats cost $95 per person plus tax and include beverage pairings.
For available tickets, visit restaurantmixtli.com.
Torres took the lead on researching the route of the conquistador, from his hometown of Medellín in the Extremadura region of western Spain to traveling to the Dominican Republic and helping Diego Velázquez de Cuellár in the conquest of Cuba. Cortés persuaded Velázquez to make him commander of an expedition to Mexico, but Velázquez soon changed his mind about Cortés, and canceled his commission. Cortés sailed out anyway. Later, Velázquez sent an expedition to capture Cortés.
&ldquoThe more you keep looking into it, it&rsquos an incredible story with crazy characters,&rdquo Torres said.
Cortés landed in Yucatán in 1519, sailed on and established a settlement in what would become Veracruz. He and his men headed for the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, traveling through forests and through a pass between two volcanoes and into the city built on a lake, which rivaled the largest in the world.
Beginning with a few books during time off from the restaurant, Torres devoured as much information as he could in the months leading up to the Conquest menu, reading one, listening to another, reading other sources on his phone and doing even more research online, including reading transcriptions of letters in Torres&rsquo &ldquoimaginary Hernán Cortés voice.&rdquo
What that voice sounds like may take a few copitas of mezcal to get the chef to demonstrate.
&ldquoThe story is so amazing,&rdquo Torres said. &ldquoI&rsquod lock myself in the office and find all sorts of cool stuff.&rdquo
&ldquoRico has always been really into reading and going deep,&rdquo Galicia said. &ldquoHe&rsquos a nerd in that aspect in that he really gets into what's going on.&rdquo
&ldquoAt the same time,&rdquo Torres said, &ldquoDiego's bringing fresh ideas, plating techniques, something new that would push these ingredients a little forward, which is always the goal here.&rdquo
With the duo&rsquos base of knowledge about the Conquest secure, it became a matter of creating the dishes. They wanted their first few dishes to follow the pattern of salad, soup and main, and they knew the first course would focus on Cortés&rsquo home in Spain.
&ldquoWe found Spanish dishes from the 1400s and 1500s,&rdquo Galicia said. &ldquoLet&rsquos put them together in a way that&rsquos fun and approachable for the guest.&rdquo
Spanish tapas of tuna, sherry and almonds became spheres of smoked tuna cream, served inside chilled grapes with a sherry reduction, almond gel and a slice of Spanish chorizo, served with a glass of dry sherry.
For the second course, they wanted to represent a colonized Cuba and chose the quintessential black beans and white rice, known as moros y cristianos (Moors and Christians).
&ldquoIt&rsquos a black beans and rice dish,&rdquo Torres said. &ldquoHow are you going to make it look awesome?&rdquo
Once Galicia came up with the idea of a rice paper, the rest fell into place: They puffed the paper, topped it with dots of pureed black beans and served that on a bowl of a squash and saffron bisque.
For Cortés&rsquo stop in Yucatán, the chefs wanted to bring a tropical feeling and emphasize how the Spanish introduced pigs to the New World.
&ldquoAnd then I grabbed pineapple one morning, and I thought, &lsquoLet&rsquos torch this and see what happens,&rsquo&rdquo Galicia said. &ldquoWe wanted to keep it tropical and porky.&rdquo
They presented a cube of braised and seared pork belly, with a torched cylinder of pineapple and dots of guava, papaya, orange and sweet potato purees.
To represent Veracruz, a mixiote (pronounced me-SHO-teh), provided the anchor. In this ancient preparation, meat with spices is placed inside the membrane of a maguey plant and cooked in an pit. Parchment paper takes the place of maguey in most restaurants in Mexico, and at Mixtli.
&ldquoWhen we were in Mexico City, we did a tour of Teotihuacán, and before we went to the pyramids, a lady showed us that,&rdquo said Cassie Ramsey, chef de partie at Mixtli, who came up with the Veracruz course. &ldquoI was looking for something we hadn&rsquot done yet, and something nobody around here does at all. They were using rabbit back then, but we decided to do fish because we were on the coast.&rdquo
Other ingredients in the dish, including berries, cherries, vanilla and hoja santa, brought indigenous flavors to the steelhead trout.
The next course, Into the Woods, imagined an expedition of Spaniards, tired and hungry and not knowing what was safe to eat in the forests between Veracruz and Tenochtitlán, so they dug into their supply bags and came up with manchego cheese and chorizo. Ramsey took the lead on this presentation, too, because a hunk of cheese and a slice of chorizo wouldn&rsquot be very imaginative.
&ldquoI started thinking of interesting, crazy ways to present it,&rdquo she said. &ldquoI heard about a goat cheese ice cream it sounded interesting and (we) kind of ran with it.&rdquo
The result: a manchego tuile, similar to a Parmesan tuile, curled over manchego ice cream and served with powdered chorizo. Next to the chorizo and manchego, a bed of mixed greens represented the forest.
As the expedition passed between the volcanoes Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl in an area that&rsquos now known as the Paso de Cortés, the chefs emphasized native ingredients the Spaniards would have found in that area: deer, quail and mushrooms. The result: venison tartare with honey-glazed quail, mushroom dust and potato confit.
The dish called City of Dreams, Act 1, focused on the food of the common residents of Tenochtitlán, which would have been cakes made out of tecuitatl, a blue-green algae harvested from Lake Texcoco. That algae now is considered a miracle health food and known as spirulina. The Mixtli chefs combined the algae with chia seeds and pepitas (pumpkin seeds) and formed it into what looked like a blue corn huarache topped with dollops of pureed chiles.
In City of Dreams: Act 2, the duck, huitlacoche and mole negro represent the royal cuisine of the emperor Moctezuma.
&ldquoWe wanted to do a dish that showed not only some local ingredients but maybe heightened up to a dinner that might have been shared by Cortés and Moctezuma,&rdquo Torres said.
Mixtli&rsquos story of the Spanish journey ends with that dish, although an intermezzo of hoja santa and lime granita and a dessert course of a chocolate pot de crème with a tobacco sprinkle represent the combining of indigenous and European ingredients, and the tobacco ties in with a pipe that Moctezuma would smoke at the end of a meal.
But this menu only sets the stage for the rest of the story, of Cortés taking Moctezuma prisoner, the emperor&rsquos own people killing him, the brief reign of Moctezuma&rsquos brother, Cuitláhuac, and the defense of the city by his successor, Cuauhtémoc, the final Aztec emperor.
Like the indigenous and Spanish cultures themselves, the ingredients combined and created a new cuisine.
&ldquoIf you think about it, these ingredients from the Americas, tomatoes, vanilla. Mexico gave all these ingredients to the rest of the world. Without them, the world wouldn&rsquot be what it is right now,&rdquo Galicia said. &ldquoIt&rsquos the clash of two cultures.&rdquo
- The three colors of Mexico’s flag hold deep significance for the country and its citizens: green represents hope and victory, white stands for the purity of Mexican ideals and red brings to mind the blood shed by the nation’s heroes.
- The flag’s dramatic emblem is based on the legend of how the Mexicas (or Aztecs) traveled from Aztlán to find the place where they could establish their empire. The god Huitzilopochtli advised them that a sign𠅊n eagle devouring a serpent atop a Nopal cactus—would appear to them at the exact spot where they should begin construction. On a small island in the middle of a lake, the Mexicas came upon the scene exactly as Huitzilopochtli had described it. They immediately settled there and founded the city of Tenochtitlán, which is now Mexico City, the country’s capital.
- Mexico is the third-largest country in Latin America after Brazil and Argentina.
- At the beginning of the 21st century, Mexico’s population surpassed 100 million.
- Mexico has the largest population of Spanish speakers in the world.
- With almost 25 million residents, Mexico City is one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world.
- Mexico has the world’s second-highest number of Catholics after Brazil.
- At nearly 2,000 miles, the border between Mexico and the United States is the second-longest in the world, after the border between the United States and Canada.
- Mexicans comprise the largest group of legal immigrants in the United States.
- Mexico is located in an area known as the Pacific “Ring of Fire.” This region, one of Earth’s most dynamic tectonic areas, is characterized by active volcanoes and frequent seismic activity. The highest point in the country, Citlaltépetl (also called Orizaba) and the active volcano Popocatépetl are among the many volcanic peaks in Mexico. The Great Ball Court at Chichén Itzá Mexico, which was used for ritualistic sports by the ancient Mayans, is the largest such court the world, measuring 166 by 68 meters (545 by 232 feet). The game, which involved elements similar to those of soccer and basketball, was played by two teams whose number varied according to region.
- Tequila, a liquor for which Mexico is famous, is made from the native blue agave plant. Named after the city where it originated, Tequila is primarily manufactured near Jalisco, which is 65 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Guadalajara.
- Mexico is the world’s leading producer of silver. An area called the Silver Belt—which encompasses Guanajuato and Zacatecas in the Mesa Central, Chihuahua in the Mesa del Norte and San Luis Potosi farther east—saw significant mining activity during the colonial period.
- Mexico hosted the Summer Olympics in 1968 and the FIFA World Cup soccer championship in 1970 and 1986.
- The Mexico City Arena—one of the largest bullfighting arenas in the world—seats 50,000. Another 35 arenas are located throughout the country.
El Maguey y la Tuna Brings Mexico to New York City - Recipes
Constructor: Philip K. Chow
Relative difficulty: Medium (normal Monday) (3-ish minutes)
THEME: MEXICAN FLAG (61A: Where you can find a 17-Across perched on an 11-Down devouring a 25-Down) — literal description of the flag in question:
- GOLDEN EAGLE (17A: Large bird of prey with a brownish-yellow neck)
- PRICKLY PEAR (11D: Cactus with an edible fruit)
- RATTLESNAKE (25D: Venomous predator with a vibrating tail)
Benito Pablo Juárez García (Spanish: [beˈnito ˈpaβlo ˈxwaɾes gaɾˈsi.a] ( listen ) 21 March 1806 – 18 July 1872) was a Mexican lawyer and politician, who served as the 26th president of Mexico from 1858 until his death in 1872. He was the first president of Mexico who was of indigenous origin. Born in Oaxaca to a poor Zapotec rural family and orphaned young, he moved to Oaxaca City at the age of 12 to go to school. He was aided by a lay Franciscan, and enrolled in seminary, later studying law at the Institute of Sciences and Arts and becoming a lawyer. After being appointed as a judge, in his 30s he married Margarita Maza, a socially prominent woman of Oaxaca City. From his years in college, he was active in politics. Appointed as head justice of the nation's Supreme Court, Juárez identified primarily as a Liberal politician. In his life, he wrote briefly about his indigenous heritage.
When moderate liberal President Ignacio Comonfort was forced to resign by the Conservatives in 1858, Juárez, as head of the Supreme Court, assumed the presidency and the two governments competed. His succession was codified in the Constitution of 1857 but he survived in internal exile for a period. During which he signed the McLane-Ocampo Treaty in 1859. He weathered the War of the Reform (1858), a civil war between the Liberals and the Conservatives, and the French invasion(1861), which was supported by Conservative monarchists. Never relinquishing office, although forced into exile to areas of Mexico not controlled by the French, Juárez tied Liberalism to Mexican nationalism. He asserted his leadership as the legitimate head of the Mexican state, rather than Emperor Maximilian, whom the French had installed.
When the French-backed Second Mexican Empire fell in 1867, the Mexican Republic with Juárez as president regained full power. For his success in ousting the European incursion, Latin Americans considered Juárez's tenure as a time of a "second struggle for independence, a second defeat for the European powers, and a second reversal of the Conquest."
Juárez is revered in Mexico as "a preeminent symbol of Mexican nationalism and resistance to foreign intervention." He understood the importance of a working relationship with the United States, and secured its recognition for his government during the War of the Reform. He held fast to particular principles, including the supremacy of civil power over the Catholic Church and part of the military respect for law and the depersonalization of political life. Juárez sought to strengthen the national government, asserting its central power over the states, a position that both radical and provincial liberals opposed.
After his death, the city and state of Oaxaca added "de Juarez" to their formal names in his honor, and numerous other places and institutions were named for him. His birthday (21 March) is celebrated as a national public and patriotic holiday in Mexico. He is the only individual Mexican to be so honored. (wikipedia)Though Juárez's birthday is actually March 21, the national holiday is celebrated every year on the third Monday of March (which this year falls on the 15th), to make a three-day weekend out of it. (banderasnews.com) ( my emph. )
I was slightly sluggish on this one, for reasons I don't really understand. I think I tried to make some other nationality fit before the FLAG part at first. In fact, without properly reading the clue, I think I tried writing in AMERICAN, but that didn't fit, so after briefly thinking ". 'MERICAN?" I just let the crosses do the work. I also thought ISLAND was going to be a foreign word for island somehow, so didn't write it in right away (9D: Cuba or Aruba), and I couldn't turn the corner from the NW into the W because I didn't know what verb was supposed to go in front of UP at 23A: Make excited, as a crowd ( FIRE UP ). I wanted RAMP (?) or RILE. Weirdly, the answer that took me the longest was SPARES (55A: Shows mercy to). I wasn't thinking of showing mercy in the rather grim and extreme sense of "sparing someone's life," and so I needed many (most of the) crosses to make that word appear. The fill is, overall, largely unremarkable, but, as I say, it is almost totally devoid of clunkers, which, on a Monday, I will take. Good day.
Vision Urbana Concludes Lower East Side Vaccination Pop-Up Campaign
The New York Times reports that about 30% of adults in New York City are now at least partially vaccinated as health officials race to tame COVID-19.
There’s general agreement that community-led vaccination efforts are often the most effective, especially in neighborhoods in which there’s significant skepticism about Covid vaccines. One grassroots vaccination effort was led by the Lower East Side non-profit group, Vision Urbana. More than 1200 vaccinations were administered during a two-week period ending Friday.
Vision Urbana partnered with Primitive Christian Church and the Seward Park Co-op (which made its community room available for the pop-up site), as well as the city’s Department of Health. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was made available to some of the neighborhood’s most vulnerable residents, including low-income seniors, who have struggled to make appointments online and who have limited ability to travel outside the immediate area to vaccination sites.
According to the Times’ interactive map, 36% of the adult population on the Lower East Side and in Chinatown (zip code 10002) have received at least one dose. The Times noted that vaccination rates are substantially higher in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods and that “white and Asian New Yorkers have been vaccinated at higher rates than Black and Latino residents…” In the zip code, 26% of the population is Hispanic, 42% is Asian, 22% is white and 7% Black.
In a press release, Vision Urbana stated, “the Lower East Side is still in need of a trusted Vaccine Pod site… Over 72% of our waiting list are residents over the age of 50 years old, many with underlying conditions and unwilling or unable to leave their local neighborhood to get vaccinated. There are still many in this community who will be overlooked because of their lack of digital skills, ACCESS, and support.”
The agave was one of the most sacred plants in pre-Spanish Mexico, and had a privileged position in religious rituals, mythology and the economy. Cooking of the "piña", or heart, of the agave and fermenting its juice was practiced. The origin of this drink has a myth. It is said that a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, cooking and opening it, releasing its juice. For this reason, the liquid is called the "elixir of the gods".  However, it is not certain whether the native people of Mexico had any distilled liquors prior to the Spanish Conquest. 
Upon introduction, these liquors were called aguardiente ('blazing water'). The Spanish had known distillation processes since the eighth century and had been used to drinking hard liquor. They brought a supply with them from Europe, but when this ran out, they began to look for a substitute. They had been introduced to pulque and other drinks based on the agave or agave plant, so they began experimenting to find a way to make a product with a higher alcohol content. The result is mezcal. 
Sugarcane and grapes, key ingredients for beverage alcohol, were two of the earliest crops introduced into the New World, but their use as source stocks for distillation was opposed by the Spanish Crown, fearing unrest from producers at home. Still requiring a source of tax revenue, alcohol manufactured from local raw materials such as agave was encouraged instead. 
The drinking of alcoholic beverages such as pulque was strongly restricted in the pre-Hispanic period. Taboos against drinking to excess fell away after the conquest, resulting in problems with public drunkenness and disorder. This conflicted with the government's need for the tax revenue generated by sales, leading to long intervals promoting manufacturing and consumption, punctuated by brief periods of severe restrictions and outright prohibition. 
Travelers during the colonial period of Mexico frequently mention mezcal, usually with an admonition as to its potency. Alexander von Humboldt mentions it in his Political Treatise on the Kingdom of New Spain (1803), noting that a very strong version of mezcal was being manufactured clandestinely in the districts of Valladolid (Morelia), Mexico State, Durango and Nuevo León. He mistakenly observed that mezcal was obtained by distilling pulque, contributing to its myth and mystique. Spanish authorities, though, treated pulque and mezcal as separate products for regulatory purposes. 
Edward S. Curtis described in his seminal work The North American Indian the preparation and consumption of mezcal by the Mescalero Apache Indians: "Another intoxicant, more effective than túlapai, is made from the mescal—not from the sap, according to the Mexican method, but from the cooked plant, which is placed in a heated pit and left until fermentation begins. It is then ground, mixed with water, roots added, and the whole boiled and set aside to complete fermentation. The Indians say its taste is sharp, like whiskey. A small quantity readily produces intoxication."  This tradition has recently been revived in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. 
Internationally, mezcal has been recognized as an Appellation of Origin (AO, DO) since 1994.   There is also a Geographical Indication (GI), originally limited to the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Puebla and Zacatecas. Similar products are made in Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Tamaulipas, but these have not been included in the mezcal DO. 
Within Mexico, mezcal is regulated under Norma Oficial Mexicana (NOM) regulations, originally NOM-070-SCFI-1994 (in 1994), by the industry body Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad del Mezcal A.C. (COMERCAM, the Mexican Regulatory Council for Mezcal Quality). This regulation became law in 2003, and certification began in 2005. 
The regulations have been controversial, not only from small artisanal producers for whom the cost of certification is prohibitive, but also from traditional producers outside the chosen GI states and those producers who believe that the term "mezcal" should not be owned by the state. Uncertified producers are prohibited from using the term "mezcal" on their products. Some producers and importers have responded by labeling their products as "destilados de agave" or "agave spirits", a category now recognized by the United States' TTB and in increasing use. 
In Canada, products that are labelled, packaged, sold or advertised as Mezcal must be manufactured in Mexico as mezcal under the stipulated guidelines. However, Canadian laws also allow for local bottling and resale of imported mezcal, after its alcohol percentage has been adjusted with the addition of distilled or purified water.  Currently uncertified agave spirits labeled as "destilados de agave" or "agave spirits" can also be bottled in the United States.
The agave plant is part of the Agavaceae family, which has almost 200 subspecies.  The mezcal agave has very large, thick leaves with points at the ends. When it is mature, it forms a "piña" or heart in the center from which juice is extracted to convert into mezcal. It takes between seven and fifteen years for the plant to mature, depending on the species and whether it is cultivated or wild.  Agave fields are a common sight in the semi-desert areas of Oaxaca state and other parts of Mexico. 
Mezcal is made from over 30 agave species, varieties, and subvarieties, in contrast with tequila, which is made only with blue agave.  Of many agave species that can be used to make mezcal, seven are particularly notable.  There is no exhaustive list, as the regulations allow any agaves, provided that they are not used as the primary material in other governmental Denominations of Origin.  However, the interpretation of this regulation to mean that mezcal cannot be made from blue agave may be a mistranslation.  The term silvestre "wild" is sometimes found, but simply means that the agaves are wild (foraged, not cultivated) it is not a separate variety.
Most commonly used is espadín "smallsword" (Agave angustifolia (Haw.), var. espadín),  the predominant agave in Oaxaca.  The next most important are arroqueño (Agave americana (L.) var. oaxacensis, sub-variety arroqueño),  cirial (Agave karwinskii (Zucc.)), barril (Agave rodacantha (Zucc.) var. barril), mexicano (Agave macroacantha or Agave rhodacantha var. mexicano, also called dobadaan) [a] and cincoañero (Agave canatala Roxb). The most famous wild agave is tobalá (Agave potatorum (Zucc.)).   Others include madrecuixe, tepeztate, and jabalí. Various other varieties of Agave karwinskii are also used, such as bicuixe and madrecuixe. 
Traditionally, mezcal is handcrafted by small-scale producers.  A village can contain dozens of production houses, called fábricas or palenques,  each using methods that have been passed down from generation to generation, some using the same techniques practiced 200 years ago.  This is an important difference with tequila which is nowadays mostly produced industrially. 
The process begins by harvesting the plants, which can weigh 40 kg each, and extracting the piña, or heart, by cutting off the plant's leaves and roots.  The piñas are then cooked for about three days, often in pit ovens, which are earthen mounds over pits of hot rocks. This underground roasting gives mezcal its intense and distinctive smoky flavor.   They are then crushed and mashed (traditionally by a stone wheel turned by a horse) and then left to ferment in large vats or barrels with water added. 
The mash is allowed to ferment, the resulting liquid collected and distilled in either clay or copper pots which will further modify the flavor of the final product.  The distilled product is then bottled and sold. Unaged mezcal is referred to as joven, or young. Some of the distilled product is left to age in barrels between one month and four years, but some can be aged for as long as 12 years.   Mezcal can reach an alcohol content of 55%.  Like tequila, mezcal is distilled twice. The first distillation is known as ordinario, and comes out at around 75 proof (37.5% alcohol by volume). The liquid must then be distilled a second time to raise the alcohol percentage.
Mezcal is highly varied, depending on the species of agave used, the fruits and herbs added during fermentation and the distillation process employed, creating subtypes with names such as de gusano, tobalá, pechuga, blanco, minero, cedrón, de alacran, creme de café and more.  A special recipe for a specific mezcal type known as pechuga uses cinnamon, apple, plums, cloves, and other spices that is then distilled through chicken, duck, or turkey breast. It is made when the specific fruits used in the recipe are available, usually during November or December. Other variations flavor the mash with cinnamon, pineapple slices, red bananas, and sugar, each imparting a particular character to the mezcal.  Most mezcal, however, is left untouched, allowing the flavors of the agave used to come forward.
Not all bottles of mezcal contain a "worm" (actually the larva of a moth, Comadia redtenbacheri, that can infest agave plants), but if added, it is added during the bottling process.  There are conflicting stories as to why such a thing would be added. Some state that it is a marketing ploy.  Others state that it is there to prove that the mezcal is fit to drink,  and still others state that the larva is there to impart flavor.  
The two types of mezcal are those made of 100% agave and those mixed with other ingredients, with at least 80% agave. Both types have four categories. White mezcal is clear and hardly aged. Dorado (golden) is not aged but a coloring agent is added. This is more often done with a mixed mezcal. Reposado or añejado (aged) is placed in wood barrels from two to nine months. This can be done with 100% agave or mixed mezcals. Añejo is aged in barrels for a minimum of 12 months. The best of this type are generally aged from 18 months to three years. If the añejo is of 100% agave, it is usually aged for about four years. 
Mexico has about 330,000 hectares cultivating agave for mezcal, owned by 9,000 producers.  Over 6 million liters are produced in Mexico annually, with more than 150 brand names. 
The industry generates about 29,000 jobs directly and indirectly. Certified production amounts to more than 2 million liters 434,000 liters are exported, generating 21 million dollars in income. To truly be called mezcal, the liquor must come from certain areas. States that have certified mezcal agave growing areas with production facilities are Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Oaxaca, San Luis Potosí, Puebla, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas. About 30 species of agave are certified for use in the production of mezcal.  Oaxaca has 570 of the 625 mezcal production facilities in Mexico,  but some in-demand mezcals come from Guerrero, as well.  In Tamaulipas, 11 municipalities have received authorization to produce authentic mezcal with the hopes of competing for a piece of both the Mexican national and international markets. The agave used here is agave Americano, agave verde or maguey de la Sierra, which are native to the state. 
Oaxaca produces 90% of the mezcal in Mexico, which presents a serious environmental threat to the state, according to local deputy Elena Cuevas Hernández. She notes that ten liters of water and seven kilograms of firewood are required for the production of one liter of mezcal, which comes to 300 liters per batch consuming 6,000 liters (1,600 U.S. gal) of water and 2,100 kilograms (4,600 lb) of firewood. In 2019 Oaxaca produced 7.1 million liters of mezcal and consumed 1,429,000,000 liters (378,000,000 U.S. gal) of water and 45,000 kilograms (50 short tons) of wood. Water is used both for irrigation of the maguey plants and cooling the distilled product wood is used to burn the stalks. Certain communities already control or prohibit cutting firewood. The deputy also warns of pollution related to inadequate disposal of rotting stalks left in the fields and pollutants with low pH (3 or 4) and methane (CH4). Yet another problem is the low pay that producers receive. 
In Mexico, mezcal is generally drunk straight, rather than mixed in a cocktail.   Mezcal is generally not mixed with any other liquids, but is often accompanied with sliced oranges, lemon or lime sprinkled with a mixture of ground fried larvae, ground chili peppers, and salt called sal de gusano, which literally translates as "worm salt".
In the US, Europe and Japan, mezcal is increasingly becoming a prominent ingredient on many craft cocktail menus. Often mezcal is swapped for a more traditional spirit, in cocktails such as the "Oaxaca Old Fashioned" and the "Mezcal Negroni".
In the last decade or so, mezcal, especially from Oaxaca, has been exported.  Exportation has been on the increase and government agencies have been helping smaller-scale producers obtain the equipment and techniques needed to produce higher quantities and qualities for export. The National Program of Certification of the Quality of Mezcal certifies places of origin for export products. Mezcal is sold in 27 countries on three continents. The two countries that import the most are the United States and Japan.  In the United States, a number of entrepreneurs have teamed up with Mexican producers to sell their products in the country, by promoting its handcrafted quality, as well as the Oaxacan culture strongly associated with it. 
The booming industry has been met with opposition from ecological activists, on the 9th of March San-Francisco based neozapatismo news outlet Radio Zapatista, released an article on the damage the industry and its mass-production is doing to the environment of the Mixteca Region and the cultures of the region. 
The state of Oaxaca sponsors the International Mezcal Festival every year in the capital city, Oaxaca de Juárez. There, locals and tourists can sample and buy a large variety of mezcals made in the state. Mezcals from other states, such as Guerrero, Guanajuato, and Zacatecas also participate. This festival was started in 1997 to accompany the yearly Guelaguetza festival. In 2009, the festival had over 50,000 visitors, and brought in 4 million pesos to the economy. 
Tulum: Paradise Found
You could see it as an upside or a downside that the fashion set seems to have made Tulum their home-away-from-home. It's hard to blame them the area features sunsets over the Gulf, exposed underground pools called cenotes, and a modern wonder of the world in Chichen Itza.. To their credit, the cool kid Parisians and New Yorkers tend to travel a little less obnoxiously than your typical "Spring Break" crowd, and the mix of cultures has contributed to Tulum (and the surrounding corridor) becoming an intriguing destination for art, fashion, and nature lovers alike.
Where to Stay:
If you have the opportunity to stay at Pablo Escobar&rsquos beach mansion, then you stay at Pablo Escobar&rsquos beach mansion. The Colombian drug lord&rsquos former digs have been flipped hard, redecorated with works by Keith Haring and KAWS, but at least for a night, you can still sleep where Pablo slept.
Where to Eat:
There are two things that you&rsquore going to want in Tulum. The first is to be outside&mdashyou&rsquore here for the beach, after all&mdashand the second is to get away from all the damn New Yorkers. Take a little ride outside of the main part of town, where cheap, delicious food and plenty of cozy hammocks await at Chamico's.
Luis Aguilar set up shop with a vintage 1971 Airstream down here&mdasha nod to his time at New York&rsquos Tacombi&mdashand now he&rsquos making some of the best tacos on the shore. Yeah, we don&rsquot blame him for leaving, either.
Housemade pastas and wood floors covered in beach sand aren't a typical combo, but the outside influences on Tulum are strange and many, and it&rsquos no surprise that an Italian restaurant would be one of the best places to sit down for a meal. Just remember to bring cash.
Where to Drink:
Few things are more &ldquoTulum Right Now&rdquo than Gitano, which feels like a nightclub in the jungle by design. The cocktails are delicious, and the spot is so hype that they opened an offshoot in Manhattan, complete with palm trees and open sky.
Batey Mojito & Guarapo Bar
It&rsquos easy to forget you&rsquore in Mexico when you&rsquore sipping on mojitos, but again, Tulum. Served from the back of a &ldquoconverted VW beetle,&rdquo Batey's are the best you&rsquoll find on the beach. Hemingway would approve.
What to Do:
The best of Tulum is found when you get away from the crowds to explore the area's natural wonders. Nothing makes that clearer than the cenotes, natural sinkholes made when limestone bedrock collapsed and gave way to some of the most beautiful swimming pools on the planet.
Chichen Itza (Zona Hotelera de Chichen Itza)
The ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza was completed sometime around 900 AD and stood strong for hundreds of years. Now one of the new Seven Wonders, people gather every equinox to watch a large shadow snake crawl down the side of the city&rsquos pyramid, El Castillo. And you thought Manhattanhenge was cool.
Xcaret Park (Solidaridad)
If getting an all-in-one experience is more your thing, Xcaret&rsquos eco-archaeological park (down the highway from Tulum) is a natural sanctuary with opportunities to get up close with wildlife, swim through underground rivers, and sample delicious Mexican cuisine on-site, no reservation needed.