Alex Stupak's Empellón
(Accompanying food porn, here: http://www.girleatscity.com/2011/04/e...)
When it rains, it pours. The short stretch of West 4th St., between 7th Ave. and Charles St., has been richly blessed with wonderful, new restaurants as of late (even as it's been cursed with Con Ed's endless drilling).
Alex Stupak's Empellón opened just a few weeks ago, in mid March, in the former Chow Bar space on West 4th Street, almost directly across the street from Gabriel Stulman's also excellent, recently-opened Fedora (reviewed here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/775803). Stupak is better known as the former pastry chef at WD-50, where the desserts have always been well loved, even while savory dishes have sometimes been controversial. Empellón isn't really about desserts, though. Nor is it about molecular gastronomy. It is, at its core, a taco shop.
On a recent evening, two dining companions and I wandered in after an aborted attempt to dine at Fedora, as walk-ins. Not surprisingly, Fedora was swamped, and so was Empellón, but we were in luck at the latter -- great, good luck. A table of three had just cancelled their reservation and we were able to sit, immediately.
We started with a white tuna ceviche served with a beet and guava puree and a short rib sope with salsa roja of guajillo, roasted tomato and chipotle. The ceviche was dressed with a creamy, sweet, and not very acidic sauce, with a bit of crumbly white cheese (cotija, I think) and a few leaves of baby spinach. I don't usually prefer this style -- I really love the textural contrast of crisp vegetables and herbs in my ceviches -- but this version was very well made. Fish was sliced in generous, but not overly large chunks, and it was sushi grade (a good thing since there probably wasn't enough acid in the dish to "cook" the fish). I probably could've done without the cotija, which seems to top every dish that comes out of this kitchen.
The short rib sope was massive, really a meal in and of itself. The thick, toasty sope was fragrant and topped with an even thicker pile of tender, juicy shredded short rib. The short rib was robustly beefy and flavorful, though not highly seasoned. It came topped with cilantro, a few crescents of onion, more of that crumbly white cotija cheese, and a few dribbles of spicy salsa roja.
All of us ordered tacos as our mains. I had the beer-braised tongue with bacon and arbol chile salsa. The portion included three, single-layer corn tortilla tacos, generously topped with succulent, richly flavorful chunks of tongue cut in sizable chunks. The huge bites really allowed the "slippery", very tender texture of the tongue to take center stage -- and this was a beautiful thing. The salsa was very spicy hot and delicious, with a wee bit of smokiness, tempered by (you guessed it) more cotija. I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to spice, and had to pause for long periods between bites to let the chile cool on my tongue. But it was an exquisite pain.
My dining companions both had the lamb barbacoa tacos with salsa borracha (pasilla oaxaquena, orange juice, mezcal). These were pleasantly lamby, juicy and tender, with a faint hint of sweetness. The filling to tortilla ratio and the meat to vegetable ratio were a bit too high for my tastes -- but I could find no fault at all with the quality of each component. Tortillas were nicely toasted / griddled and the lettuces were fresh. I didn't detect the fat and collagen content present in other barbacoas I've tried, but the meat was very moist.
The cocktails we tried were fair to good. The Swedish Punsch (with Batavia-Arrack/Rum/Lemon/Black Tea/Black Cardamom/CO2) was my favorite: slightly smokey, spicy, dark and sweet -- mysterious and androgynous. It was almost heavy enough to be a meal.
I understand there's some controversy about the price of the tacos at Empellón. They are, admittedly, a bit high if you're looking at the food, alone. (We had excellent lengua, al pastor and carne enchillada tacos at an old favorite, Tulcingo del Valle, in Hell's Kitchen not long after our meal at Empellón, which ran us $2.75 a piece.) But if you consider the neighborhood and the classy digs, prices don't seem nearly as bad. We'll be back. Next time I want to try dessert.
50 Clinton Street, New York, NY 10002
Tulcingo del Valle
665 10th Ave, New York, NY 10036
230 W 4th St, New York, NY 10014
A second visit (photos here: http://www.girleatscity.com/2011/04/e...):
I think it's fair to say I'm an enthusiastic fan of Empellón. This West Village newcomer, open only a month (since March 21, 2011), is just lovable: The food and cocktails run the gamut from good to completely phenomenal. Our waiter on our second visit, Aldo Camargo, was sincerely nice, warm and dignified, and a very talented photographer to boot. And though the front dining room can be a bit loud, in most parts of the room at most times, the volume feels spirited and fun, not oppressive.
This time around, we started with a gorgeous, crackly plate of chicharones with salsa Veracruz (caper, green olive, parsley), a bubbly, talkative concoction as unusual-looking as any dish from WD-50. (They sound like Rice Krispies in a bowl of milk when they first arrive at the table, straight from the deep fryer.) The chicharones were greasy as hell and unblotted, a heart attack on a plate if I ever saw one -- but so delicious, they might be worth taking a few years off one's life. Salsa Veracruz, a slightly sweet, mild garnish, was an interesting accompaniment and included cooked tomatoes, onions and garlic, in addition to the listed ingredients. The chicharones were even more mind blowing with the smoky cashew sauce and arbol chile sauce -- usually accompaniments to the guacamole, I think -- that Aldo was nice enough to bring to the table.
Our next plate, the octopus with sesame, parsnip and salsa papanteca (chipotle, sweet spices, piloncillo), made us feel a little bit better about ourselves and our projected life expectancies. Tender disks of octopus paired beautifully with disks of naturally sweet parsnip and it was rather exciting to stick one's fork into a disk and not know whether you'd come up with parsnip or octopus. You couldn't tell by looking. There was something in the dish that reminded me of Doritos in a good way, though I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was. I think it might have included sweet paprika. Piloncillo (unrefined whole cane sugar) was added with a moderate hand and the dish was not overly sweet.
Our sopes -- one with meatballs and one with an almost baigan bharta-like eggplant -- were a bit oozy and moist, so they had to be scarfed down, quickly. (Or that was our excuse, anyway.) I have to confess I liked the short rib sopes we had from our last meal a little bit better. Meatballs were oddly slightly dry by themselves, despite the sauce, but they were revelatory with a drizzle of smokey cashew sauce. It's possible, though, that you could put that cashew sauce on dog turds and make them taste good. The eggplant was flavorful and enjoyable, though I'm not sure I would have paired it with a sope base.
Our final savory dish was the queso tetilla with chorizo and peas, served with four, wonderfully fragrant, freshly made corn tortillas. FYI: "Tetilla" evidently means "small breast" in Galician, a language spoken in northwestern Spanish, and the cheese is so named because it's sold in a conical shape that resembles a boob. Interesting, huh? But I digress. The dish, itself, was not as fabulous as the name, unfortunately. It was well made, with good cheese melted over a flavorful base of ground chorizo and plump peas, but I think I'm just not a fan of these queso fundido-types of dishes. I find the cheese rubbery and excessive, though I know there are many who adore this type of thing (like my dining companion, who loved the dish).
Since we'd been acting with reckless disregard for our health already, tonight, we figured we might as well keep going and order dessert. Alex Stupack's wife, Lauren Resler, who was formerly the pastry sous-chef at Babbo, heads up the dessert-making at Empellón and we'd heard some mouth-watering things about her confections, from other Chowhounds. Despite my best efforts to get my dining companion to order the tres leches cake so I could steal a bite, he ordered the buñuelos with warm honey and cajetas. I had the chocolate flan with masa-cocoa strussel and cinnamon ice cream. The flan was a thick, richly chocolatey, velvety dessert that reminded me more of a chocolate mousse than anything else. It was served with honey and a small egg of cinnamon ice cream. I usually don't like cinnamon (or what's sold as cinnamon in the US), because the flavor is so hard-hitting. This ice cream was restrained in flavor, with excellent mouthfeel. Both the flan and ice cream paired nicely with the masa cocoa strussel, which reminded me of the crust of a cheesecake. The generous pool of honey was perhaps not necessary, since it made the dessert overly sweet for my tastes, but the overall dish was well conceived.
50 Clinton Street, New York, NY 10002
110 Waverly Pl, New York, NY 10011
Last night one of the specials was a scotch egg taco, i.e. a soft boiled egg covered with crumbled chorizo and served on a torlilla with the usual trimmings. It was as delicious as it sounds especially with the chili, cashew, and tomatillo salsas. I also tried the eggplant sopes and the chocolate flan, both of which were as wonderful as you described.
About half the menu consisted of new items. i think it's great that the chef likes to offer new dishes on a regular basis. Empellon is definitely now part of my rotation.
230 W 4th St, New York, NY 10014
I haven't been yet, but have walked by multiple times now.... How does the space "feel"? Honestly, it just looks like the painted they bricks white and threw some tables and chairs in there. Nothing about it seems remotely homey or Mexican to me, so I'm interested to hear what others think.
(Based on food alone, it seems as though it certainly warrants a visit, despite high taco prices!)
It's a spare, minimal space, but the food, vibe and service feel homey and neighborly to me, especially when the place is full.
As far as interiors go, Empellon is not as fancy as Centrico, Rosa Mexicano, or Zarela (before it closed) but then the food is better than any of those places.
9 E. 18th St., New York, NY 10003
211 West Broadway, New York, NY 10013
230 W 4th St, New York, NY 10014
I'm sure it's highly subjective, of course, but the front room feels spare, clean and comfortable to me -- like it's not trying too hard to fit any stereotypes about what a Mexican restaurant ought to look like. The mural on the right, when you walk in, behind the bar is pretty cool, I think, but it doesn't dominate the space. It looks like graffiti art you might see on a wall in Panama City.
The back room felt a bit more elegant and grown up, I think because of the lighting. It's not necessarily a young crowd (think 30s to 50s), but there is a youthful energy to the restaurant when it's full, because of the noise, the lighting and the vibrant bar scene.
Don't think it's really going for a homey vibe; more casual and comfortable and non-pretentious. I like the rope chandeliers.
i've been once and am booked to return this Saturday. just as Michelle said, Aldo, the server, did a fantastic job breaking down the menu and highlighting certain dishes that we might not have ordered otherwise. Ms. Coasts and I were joined by my cousin and her boyfriend, both of whom grew up in Puerto Rican homes. they felt as though the chicharones and the tres leches were good, but far from what they grew up with. i realize it's a mexican restaurant, not Puerto Rican, and i'm not sure how these dishes vary between the two cultures. regardless, we tried several dishes and enjoyed everything.
as far as prices go, i thought it was fairly reasonable. we each had a cocktail or two (Por Que, No! mmmm), plus shared desserts and plenty of dishes, including different tacos, yet the bill was under $200 for four with tax and tip.
lora, i agree with michelle's comments on the space. i think they did a great job of avoiding the common trappings of a mexican restaurant. the front room has a fresh feel and is popping with energy, possibly due to the cramped space at the entrance and bar. the back room is a bit more relaxed, but more nicely decorated. small framed paintings adorn the walls and there's a modern chandelier mid-room. based on your frequent recommendations for Breslin, Spotted Pig and Joseph Leonards, i'm sure you'd like the space.