Note: All interviews and some photography for this article was conducted after all of the food had been reviewed.
230 West 4th Street, New York NY 10014 (map); 212-367-0999; empellon.com
Service: Attentive, but needs a little work on their food knowledge
Setting: Comfortable seating, crowded, loud
Must-Haves: Guacamole, tetilla queso fundido, tongue and al pastor tacos.
Cost: Apps $10 to $11, tacos $15 to $17 for three
We all took note when WD-50 pastry chef Alex Stupak announced that after years of making a name for himself as one of the most innovative pastry chefs in the country at restaurants like Alinea in Chicago or Clio in Boston, he was finally striking out on his own with a restaurant in the West Village. It was when he announced that not only was the restaurant not going to be pastry-themed, but that it in fact was going to be a high-end Mexican taqueria, that we all started scratching our heads. The place is fittingly named Empellón (Spanish for "push" or "shove"), considering the giant stylistic leap he's taken.
"I became a pastry chef in the first place because it offered me freedom," says Stupak. Unlike a line cook whose job is to take orders and work as a team with a kitchen full of cooks, the pastry chef often flies solo, responsible for everything from menu design to execution. He took up pastry with no experience to fill an unexpected vacancy while working as a line cook at the Federalist in Boston. "Not having a strong pastry background helped me—classical things were difficult for me to grasp, so I created my own style." It's a style that's now come to be imitated in nearly every restaurant with a modernist bent.
Plans for Empellón started about 18 months before the actual opening, while Stupak was still pastry chef at WD-50. "My resume really hurt me here," he says; "People expected me to open a pastry restaurant, but the problem is, once people pigeonhole you, your creativity is severely restricted. People come for my pastry and expect certain things—like you'd expect pasta on an Italian menu—but with Mexican food, they have no expectations. I'm opening a Mexican restaurant because it's the food I love to eat, and that's it."
The important question is: would we love it as well?
Meals start out strong with two for-the-table dishes. Chicharon with Chileajo ($8) gets you crisp, light-as-air, freshly fried pork rinds that come to the table still crackling and popping as they cool. Fresh, well-balanced Guacamole ($10) is among the best I've had. It's served alongside warm chips with a sweet and spicy salsa of ancho chiles, and an intensely smokey cashew-based sauce that stay on the table for the rest of the meal. I found myself dipping back often.
On the cold side of the menu there's a trio of rotating ceviches and salads. Octopus with Parsnip and Salsa Papanteca ($13) is tender and smoky with a uniquely sweet twist: a salsa papanteca, made with chipotles, warm spices, and piloncillo, a type of raw sugar with a distinct slightly bitter molasses undertone. Chunks of barely-crunchy parsnip resemble the disks of octopus leg, making for a salad that surprises you with alternate bites of sweet, nutty parsnip and tender, briny octopus. This is very intelligent food—the kind that brings together seemingly disparate elements in a way that's recognizable as distinctly Mexican.
Baby Carrots with Radish, Cress, and Mole Poblano ($11) only has four main ingredients, but the smoky, complex mole poblano carries this salad of meaty and sweet roasted baby carrots with peppery cress and paper thin slices of radish. Wait a minute—cold mole poblano? Yep. And it works.
Things continue on a strong note with their Sopes ($10 each). The best sope comes with creamy refried beans and a fried egg stuffed in a tender, slightly crisp shell formed in-house from fresh masa. It's perfect bar food, as are the excellent beef and pork meatballs bound with masa and stewed with tripe.
The three Quesos Fundidos ($11 each) are hot skillets of baked cheese meant for sharing, and can be a bit more hit or miss. Gooey, melted Tetilla is hard not to love, with a bit of heat from roasted strips of pepper and crunchy cactus paddle. Less successful is the Sheep's Milk Ricotta with Picadillo, which comes out more chalky than gooey. Rich shortrib studded with pinenuts and raisins starts out delicious, but with no brightness or acidity to cut through the fat, quickly falls into heavy territory.
Both quesos fundidos come with a warmer filled with fresh corn tortillas, delivered daily from Tortilleria Nixtamal in Corona. Early after opening, there were freshness issues: The tortillas were coming out with dry, tough edges. Stupak accredits the problem to the staff's classical training. "By our system of logic, if you make hot food, it should go on a hot plate. The problem is, you put a hot tortilla on a plate, then you have three guys hunched over assembling those tacos the same way they'd be hunched over Bernardaud china in a three-star restaurant. We spend too long plating, so by the time it gets to you, the hot plate has dried the edges out."
Thankfully, they seemed to have caught their stride—the dry tortilla issues have vanished, and these have become some of the best in the city. "I did a taqueria because Mexican cuisine as a system of cooking in a professional kitchen is new and exciting to me. It's actually humbling when you consider how simple a lot of the food seems," says Stupak.
A few more antojitos—including some awesomely moist Short Rib Tamales ($10)—round out the appetizers. Though earlier menu iterations featured full-on entrees, Stupak has since switched to an all-taco format to ease pressure on the tiny, busy kitchen, offering the occasional main course as a weeknight special. Plans are in place to slowly re-introduce them as the restaurant grows.
I'm interested to see what he does with main courses (masa dumplings and Yucatan-style papadzul both sound promising), but its tough to complain about the tacos ($15 to $17 for three), which have been almost universally excellent.
It's here where Stupak's knack for balancing unique flavors and textures really shines. Shredded Chicken comes laced with an herbacious green chorizo and braised greens. A seasonal special of Softshell Crab comes in a perfectly crisp tempura batter with hot salsa verde, a drizzle of crema, and an intense oven-dried tomato.
I'm a huge fan of well-cooked lengua, and the Beer Braised Tongue delivers—tender and fatty with crisply frayed edges, served with a hot chile de arbol salsa and a few slices of buttery fingerling potatoes. Straight-out-of-Baja Fish Tempura with cabbage and spicy lime mayonnaise are not earth-shattering in their originality, but show faultless execution. "You could put lime mayonnaise on anything and people would flock to it," says Stupak, dismissively. I don't care—it tastes good to me.
It's all good stuff, but my question is: are people really going to pay $17 for it? After my most recent visit, I emailed Stupak with this very question. "I agree—there's a sociological expectation that people have for a taqueria," says Stupak, "but here's the deal. People would pay forty or fifty bucks for a lobster dish in a French restaurant, but complain about $19 lobster at a Mexican restaurant where it's prepared with the same level of care. It's culinary racism. Do Mexicans know how to buy lobster cheaper?"
It somehow just feels wrong to pay more than a couple bucks for a taco, for Chinese Dumplings, or for a bowl of Pho, yet it's hard to argue with Stupak's logic. You'd be hard pressed to find any other restaurant in the city serving Berkshire Pork—a rare breed of British pig known for its heavily marbled, deep red meat—or rich, tender Lamb Barbacoa for a mere $17. The former is insanely juicy with a well-charred crust and a slice of charred pineapple, while the latter is served with a sweet and spicy orange and pasilla pepper-based salsa borracha.
$17 for three tacos? Expensive. But $17 for a half pound of braised lamb prepared with experience and care? Seems reasonable to me, particularly considering that people line up to eat the markedly inferior but equally expensive tacos at any of the Dos Caminos locations in the city.
"Sure, I could charge only a few bucks per taco, but then I'd have to sacrifice the quality of my meat. I'd be serving chicken, carnitas, and carne asada every night," explains Stupak, who seems to get worked up over the thought of it. "If I wasn't charging real restaurant prices for my food and building in that expectation, I'd never be able to serve the product I want to serve or be creative in the way I want to be creative."
There's a pride and almost a rebelliousness in his insistence on the matter. "Listen—I can either respond and say, '$5 tacos? Well, nobody does that,' and give in, or I can say, 'Hey! Nobody does that!' and go for it. I'm not trying to create a high end taqueria, I'm trying to create a taqueria with a point of view." Comparisons to taco trucks or cheap brick-and-mortar taquerias around the city will be inevitable, but seem largely beside the point.
Perhaps the most interesting move for Stupak to make was to completely detach himself from the pastry menu. "I'm putting exactly zero creative input into the pastry side," he says, instead leaving the entire menu in the hands of his wife Lauren Resler, a former pastry chef from Babbo and sister of the bartender Mat Resler (who incidentally runs a great bar program—check out our review here). She serves a Passion Fruit Tart ($9) with a great filling and toasted meringue (though the crust is too thick for the size of the tart), and a decent Tres Leches Cake ($9) that's a little dry for my liking, but comes with an excellently funky goat's milk ice cream.
The signature Buñuelos ($9) served with house-made cajeta (goat's milk caramel) and honey are the best thing offered—freshly fried donuts served warm, crisp, and light. It's a solid menu that stylistically couldn't be further from the modernist masterpieces Stupak was creating at WD-50 and Alinea.
For the time being, you don't have the ability to mix-and-match tacos, which means that unless you go with a large group, you're stuck limiting yourself to one or two flavors. "I agree the dining experience could be more fun if you could order six different tacos instead of three of this and three of that," Stupak said, "but we're a 5-man line serving 100 seats. It's just not possible. Think of it as going out for pizza: you've just gotta agree beforehand what the table is going to share."
But Stupak says that they've been considering serving order of two tacos at a time instead of three, to allow a bit more liberty in terms of sharing. The best time to go might be after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, when you can order single tacos for $5 a pop. I can easily see myself ending many future Friday nights at their bar with a tongue taco in one hand and a Drunk Monk cocktail in the other.
While Stupak may have earned his fame with innovative technique and cutting edge technological cooking, with Empellón, he proves that even classic dishes made with traditional techniques can be every bit as exciting.