Five Dollar Food Challenge: Tacos, Tamales, and Tortas at 'El Aguila'

By: Michael Engle

It is a formidable challenge to find a good meal for five dollars (or less) in New York City.  Eliminating all "five dollar footlongs" and other fast-food offerings, the options become even more scarce.  We are going to bring you a new series of $5 Food Challenges, where we scope out the neighborhood for some good cheap eats! In a recent search for my $5 food challenge, I visited Spanish Harlem and, on a whim, elected to patronize El Aguila, an oasis of authentic Mexican cuisine.

When I first walked in, I was overwhelmed by all the unique smells within the store.  Though the panaderia was located in the back, the always fresh cakes and panes dulces made their presences known immediately.  In addition to the traditionally-made Mexican pastries, the entire store highlighted its devotion to authentic fresh Mexican food, including the fresh meat and "fruit water."

My only disappointment was that, upon placing my order at the cashier, I was forced to settle for "Plan B."  I attempted to order a barbacoa (Mexican goat meat) taco, with a jalapea±o and cheese tamale.  At 5 P.M. on a Friday evening, they were out of both.  Forced to choose again, I decided to try the chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage) taco and a tamal verde, i.e.: a tamale featuring chicken and a spicy green chili sauce, instead.  I also selected a walnut-topped cake from the panaderia.

The chorizo taco was the highlight of my experience.  To preserve the freshness, El Aguila's sausages are initially left whole, while simmering in a warm liquid and waiting to be eaten.  When I ordered my taco, one entire sausage was chopped into small pieces, on the spot, and placed on a freshly fried corn tortilla.  It was simply garnished, with only raw onions, cilantro, and two slices of lime- a true hallmark of real Mexican cuisine.

 The tamale was also very tasty.  Upon opening two layers of corn husk "gift wrap," I arrived at the steamy, doughy, and edible center, which was perfectly spiced.  (For those who want even more heat, there is a self-serve sauce bar, with cauldrons of various sauces waiting to be ladled onto your plates.)  After the two meat offerings, the cake was a satisfying coda to my Mexican feast, as well as the best "bang for the buck (or five)" I have sampled in a long time.

My taco, tamale, and cake collectively cost $4.72, with tax included.  Though it is indeed possible to eat well here for under $5, one should reasonably expect to spend $6 to $8 here, in order to sample a gigantic torta (Mexican sandwich) or a combo plate, which adds rice and beans, as well as a fruit water, to the meal.

El Aguila proved to be the perfect destination for quick, straight-forward, simple, and affordable Mexican cuisine.  Because it is open 24 hours, it is a good destination at any time, whether you are craving a breakfast egg burrito, a late night snack, or anything in between.  For all the food I was able to get for under $5, I look forward to returning to El Aguila to sample the whole menu!

 El Aguila, 137 East 116th Street (in between Lexington and Park Avenues), NYC 10029, tel. (212) 410-2450.  

Photo: Michael Engle

For more five dollar food challenges, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)