Former WD-50 pastry chef Alex Stupak took a big leap last year when he opened up Empellón, a high-end Mexican taqueria in the West Village. Despite a few mixed reviews, I was personally impressed with both the idea—treating Mexican food with the same attention to detail and ingredient quality as high-end food in other cuisines—and the execution. In the multiple return visits I've made over the past year, things have only gotten better as his pricing structure improved, the once ridiculously noisy space was acoustically dampened, and the food continued to evolve into always-impressive original takes on regional Mexican classics.
A year later, Stupak is back with Empellón Cocina, a taco-free, quieter, slightly higher-end sister restaurant in the East Village. I stopped by a few nights ago to check out the space and the drinks.
With the new Empellón, Stupak hopes to try and silence the "why should I pay more than a buck or two for a taco?" crowd, who have admittedly irritated him in the past. "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?"
Despite the stigma of expensive tacos, the original Empellón has flourished, with a packed house nearly every time I've stopped by. With a focus solely on small-to-medium sized plates and a quieter setting, Empellón Cocina may well do Empellón one better.
The cocktail program, while still focusing on mezcal and Mexican ingredients, now features drinks with slightly more involved preparations. "At the old place we were so high volume that we mostly relied on mixed shaken drinks just to keep up with the pace. Here, we've got a bigger bar, more space, and a more relaxed atmosphere, so we're doing a lot more stirred drinks, drinks mixed to order, egg-based drinks, stuff like that," explained Matt Resler, bar manager at both Empellón locations (and Stupak's brother-in-law).
Peep through the slideshow above for a closer look at a few of the dishes and cocktails.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.