I really can't tell you about the first time I ate at an El Maguey Mexican restaurant in the St. Louis area. It may have been back in 1994 when I was working for a company based out of the far western St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield whose office was near the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in the Chesterfield Valley. I just remember the food being very good and thinking that the pronunciation of the place was "El MAG-way".
A few years later, I was working for a company based out of St. Peters, another far western suburb of St. Louis. The sales manager of the company asked me if I wanted to go eat Mexican for lunch, someplace called "El Ma-GUY". He said it was over in St. Charles, not far from the office. When we went to the St. Charles location, I said, "Oh, I've eaten at one of these before!" Only I thought it was pronounced El MAG-way."
My sales manager looked at me like I was a complete Midwestern hick. "It's El Ma-GUY!" I am such an uncultured dweeb sometimes. But, then, that was a long time ago...
On a recent trip to St. Louis, I found myself staying in the Chesterfield valley one evening and I found out that there was an El Maguey not far from the hotel. I took a short trip over to the one off of Long Road in the Chesterfield Towne Center, right in the flight path of Spirit of St. Louis airport. (see map)
I can't tell you how many El Maguey's there are in the St. Louis area. I've seen them in Kansas City, Columbia and Springfield, MO. I have eaten at - maybe - six different El Maguey's around the St. Louis area over the years - a couple of them I've been there multiple times in the past. I was somewhat surprised that I'd never written about El Maguey before this.
The name of the restaurant comes from the name of a Mexican plant from which Mezcal is extracted from, then distilled. The maguey plant is a close relative to the agave plant from which top-notch tequila is made from. They extract the Mezcal from the heart of the agave plant known as the "pina". Mezcal is the Mexican liquor in which the worm comes at the bottom of the bottle. But not all Mezcal bottles have the worm - it started out as a mistake in the 30's when an infestation of larvae from a moth that lives in the maguey plant got into some of the bottles during the distilling and bottling process. Some companies then used this as a marketing ploy and began to put the little larvae worms in the bottles with the Mezcal. Today, most of the Mezcal that is produced comes from the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Over 500 distilleries are located in Oaxaco. I had Mezcal one time back in the 70's when I was much younger and much more stupid than I am today. I think I saw Jesus that night...
I don't exactly know when the first El Maguey came into being, but today there are about 40 El Maguey franchise locations in Missouri and Kansas. In doing some research for this entry, the name Martin Leon came up in connection with many of the El Maguey locations from St. Louis to Topeka, KS. I don't know if he was the founder of the original El Maguey, but I'm guessing he has something to do with the overall corporate structure of the company.
When I pulled into the parking lot of the Chesterfield Towne Center that one evening, I immediately remembered that I had eaten at this particular El Maguey location at one point and not all that long ago. It is located less than 100 yards from where the company I used to work for back in the early to mid-90's was located. But the land on which the Chesterfield Towne Center sits today was a large open field back then.
The dining area of this particular El Maguey is open and spacious. The well lit room features a number of tables in the center with booths lining the walls. A young man greeted me when I came in and escorted me to a booth - I remember sitting in the exact same booth on my previous visit - and he handed me a menu.
The first thing I did before he walked away was to order one of El Maguey's large margaritas. I've always liked El Maguey's margaritas - the mix is not too sweet and syrupy like you find at a number of other Mexican restaurants. And they always seem to pack it with a generous amount of tequila. After mixing up this particular margarita and taking a sip, it confirmed my assertion - there was a LOT of tequila in this one.
The menu at El Maguey is really not unlike many other Mexican restaurants that I've been to over the years. We have a lot of Mexican restaurants in the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois and the menu at El Maguey could literally be interchanged with some of them. We used to joke that a Number 4 combination and a Number 22 combination on the menu at one of the Azteca locations in the Quad Cities is the same as the Number 4 and the Number 22 at El Maguey. We figured that there had to be one guy who overlords all of the Mexican menus at places like El Maguey and Azteca.
El Maguey features, of course, fajitas that include your choice of beef, chicken, shrimp or chorizo (or all four, if you want). But they also feature a vegetarian fajita and something called the Fajitas del Mar - a seafood fajita entree that features tilapia, shrimp and crab meat. I don't know if I've ever seen a seafood fajita entree on a menu at a Mexican restaurant. I was seriously considering getting that. They also feature a number of Mexican style steak entrees, as well as a number of chicken dishes. Their quesadillas are very good and I do like their Quesadilla Jalisco which consists of El Maguey's succulent grilled shrimp mixed with beans. There's something about El Maguey's shrimp that sets me off. I don't know if it's the seasoning they use or the way they grill it, but the grilled shrimp I've had at any El Maguey is outstanding to my taste buds.
I looked at enchiladas (their Enchilada Maguey - filled with grilled shrimp - is to die for), their burritos (the Burrito Mexicano with pork is excellent, as well) and chimichangas. They have a Carnitas Dinner entree that I've had and is also very good - they take seasoned slow-roasted pork and serve it with rice, beans, guacamole, pico de gallo and grilled onions. And, of course, I had to go through their combinations - over 30 of them - all of which cost $8.25 each.
I was torn between getting something with shrimp and something with pork. I did the best of both worlds with a shrimp chimichanga and a pork taco a la carte. The waiter asked if I wanted my taco with a hard corn shell or a soft flour shell. I went with the soft shell that evening. It wasn't long before both the taco and the chimichanga showed up at my table.
The first thing I ate was the pork taco. It was the slow roasted carnitas style of pork that I like at El Maguey and it was outstanding. A little bit of lettuce and cheese was sprinkled on top and I didn't need to add any of El Maguey's very good salsa to the taco. The succulent taste of the pork jumped out with each bite.
After getting my pork fix for the evening, the shrimp chimichanga was next. It was smaller than the pork or beef tipped chimichangas I've had at an El Maguey in the past. There were - perhaps - 10 medium sized shrimp inside the flour tortilla wrap. And the wrap was entirely too large for the chimichanga. I was getting more of the tortilla with each bite than I was the shrimp, so much so that about halfway through eating the chimichanga that I just started picking the shrimp out of the inside of the chimichanga and eating it like that. Like I say, there's something about the shrimp at an El Maguey's that just sets me off and these were no exception. I wonder if I could just go into El Maguey and order a couple dozen grilled shrimp - no sides - and see what they'd charge me for it.
The beans and rice were serviceable - not much to talk about there. El Maguey's guacamole is above average and they never give me enough when I order a chimichanga from there. I should just order some guacamole dip when I go there and quit bitchin' about not getting enough of the stuff.
El Maguey is always a predictable outcome for me. The food is good and they have a number of items to choose from. The service is good, as well. The chips and salsa are good. The margaritas are good. If you're looking for "good" Mexican food, but nothing outstanding or flashy like you may find at more adventurous Mexican restaurants, El Maguey is going to suit your needs. It's family friendly, fast and efficient, and I've never had a bad experience during all the years I've eaten at an El Maguey. I can see where some people may not like the food, while others will rave about the place. Put me in the middle, but more so to the "rave" end of the spectrum.