El Maguey Spices Up Neighborhood’s West Side
Open your mind when you walk into El Maguey and you’ll find exciting new reasons to open your mouth. The Mexican restaurant just off 135th Street on Washington features an ever-changing menu rich with options from appetizers to desserts. And the more you get to know this business, the more you want to explore.
“We build on tradition to create opportunities for discovering Mexican cuisine in creative new ways,” says co-owner Gerardo Jaime. “Experimenting and perfecting is a way of life for us, from the way our food tastes to the way it feels to dine here.”
There’s lots of space inside El Maguey Martin City with refinement that might exceed your expectations. High ceiling fans, exposed brick, rustic wood accents, splashes of colorful art, and a sheltered, sunset-facing patio create an atmosphere you want to drink in along with your margarita.
The menu is huge, reflecting decades of recipes that have evolved within an enormous family business stretching across several states. Missouri represents El Maguey’s biggest presence with over 40 locations from St. Louis to Kansas City. But make no mistake, there’s nothing that feels like a cookie-cutter restaurant chain. Each location is free to finesse its own appeal, and together, they’re all simply aimed at continuing an immigrant family’s commitment to extraordinary Mexican cuisine.
“I’ve been helping out with my family’s business since I was a boy. It’s all I’ve ever known,” says Jaime. “I’m so excited to now shape my own El Maguey location, and try to make it the best one yet.”
Jaime is just 22 years old and already a restaurant owner with more than a decade of experience. Sit in a booth and talk with him awhile, and you can easily tell he’s focused on making his own mark, and knows exactly what he’s doing. Jaime, and co-owner Omar Barajas, constantly bounce ideas off each other and draw on plenty of shared experience, from serving tables to designing menus. Barajas is a long-time family friend.
“We do the work, everything from operations to the creative thinking that goes into the customer experience,” says Barajas. “We’re always looking at how we can improve.”
The ownership team chose the Martin City location to extend the brand into South Kansas City. Jaime and Barajas see big potential. They know customers in our neighborhood are hungry for their restaurant because up until a few years ago, there was a popular El Maguey not far from here in Grandview. The only reason it shut down was because of maintenance conflicts with the property owner.
“We knew South Kansas City would welcome us back. Settling here in Martin City specifically was a good decision,” says Jaime, glancing out the window at 135th Street. “The business community here is strong and our business has done well, despite getting off to a rough start during the pandemic.”
El Maguey opened its doors just as the pandemic was heading into its darkest days in late 2020. Like most local businesses, the restaurant limped along for months as a quiet winter turned to a silent spring. But when lockdowns lifted in the summer, customers began pouring in. Jamie says an emphasis on a blockbuster drink menu helped.
“We really started getting creative with margaritas and our other drinks, and I think people responded to that. The timing was right. Everyone wanted to come out of lockdowns, have a drink, and enjoy each other again. We were in the right place at the right time offering many options.”
Since then, El Maguey Martin City has earned a steady stream of regular customers and the staff has expanded to nearly 20 employees. The ‘take out’ only days are long gone, and the spirit of success now fills the restaurant like the Mariachi music bubbling in the background.
Culinary Ambition Rises from Authentic Roots
You can’t help but find a little more delight in the Mexican food you’re enjoying when you know the restaurant’s owners remain directly tied to Mexico. Jaime visits family and friends there five or six times a year, and brings back new ideas from sidewalk cafes and other eateries he comes across in places like Guadalajara. Barajas even ran a restaurant in Monterrey before joining El Maguey.
The result is loyalty to old world standards paired with an appetite for different combinations, new ingredients, and upscale modern style. Jaime and Barajas never stop hunting for what’s better and what’s next.
“Part of the essence of true Mexican cuisine is creativity,” says Jaime, flipping through El Maguey’s menu. “It’s about sticking to traditions but also experimenting. You want to give customers what they expect, but you also want to introduce them to new concepts so they can see all the great things that are possible.”
“You know, it’s like my memories of my Mom cooking something really good, and my Uncle coming over for dinner,” adds Barajas. “Then, a couple of weeks later, he would invite us over to his house for his slightly different version of the same dish. You always want to be on the lookout for new influences, but you don’t want to just copy recipes.”
The food at El Maguey Martin City is continually changing. Jaime and Barajas frequently sample other Mexican restaurants, steakhouses, and even barbecue joints to spark new ideas under their own roof. Barajas says they actually hold meetings to brainstorm.
“For example, we’ll talk about things like what can we do with a ribeye steak? Maybe we add mushrooms, shrimp and broccoli. We don’t have a smoker, but we look for ways to bring barbecue onto the menu by doing things like creating nachos topped with carnitas drenched in barbecue sauce. And you’ll find mango sauce here, not just typical ranchero sauce. We embrace barbacoa and bacon in ways few other Mexican restaurants do, and we offer a variety of steak dishes. We have a baked potato fajita. The list goes on.”
“Just about everything here is homemade, down to the salsa,” adds Jaime. “We even fry our own chips. We’re not fans of canned or frozen anything. That’s just not the best way to do things right.”
El Maguey isn’t a restaurant where you want to just grab a quick taco and run out. You’ll want to settle in for a full meal, from chips, salsa, and margaritas, all the way through dessert (there are several choices) and even Mexican cinnamon coffee to top it all off.
“It’s less about piling up portions to overwhelm you,” explains Jaime. “It’s more about taste. The right mix of flavors and textures from start to finish.”
Bowls and cups that echo Mexican tradition round out the authentic experience. Expect your ranchero bowl entree to be delivered in an actual molcajete bowl — a heavy, stone mixing bowl used by Mexicans for thousands of years. Your coffee and other drinks may arrive in traditional Mexican clay mugs, similar to the ones that once lined the walls of the kitchen where Barajas’s mother prepared family meals.
Margarita varieties are nothing new, but you’ll only find a few at most Mexican restaurants. Jaime says there are around 16 at El Maguey. “And that doesn’t even include mixtures like the Skinny, Top Shelf, and Black Magic — a pretty rare black tequila.” He introduced the idea of margarita flights to help customers sample them all. “Our margarita flights are really popular. We’re known for them.”
A Shot of Success in Martin City
El Maguey’s ownership team couldn’t be happier with Martin City and the people their restaurant attracts. Some customers recognize the brand from travels throughout Missouri. Others are just interested in trying something new in a neighborhood well known for its diverse culinary culture.
“Our food and the experience we create here sells itself,” says Jaime. “All we have to do is raise awareness and the rest will take care of itself. Try us one time and you’ll want to come back.”
The restaurant does a good amount of advertising, including a spicy Facebook page that will make your mouth water. Jaime encourages feedback and Martin City doesn’t hold back, which helps make a great restaurant even better.
“We offer samples and take everything we hear back to the kitchen. Sometimes feedback leads to entirely new recipes. That’s why we’re focused on staying close to our customers and building a community where we can all grow together.”
That’s the kind of perspective that makes any business feel right at home in Martin City. We’re known for the way we pull together, compare notes, and look for better ways of doing good work. Thanks for joining us, El Maguey. You’re undoubtedly a good fit for the neighborhood with the best taste in Kansas City.