Monday, November 09, 2015

Dining in NY - Empellon Taqueria

I am kinda fascinated that a well-regarded pastry chef like Alex Stupak can suddenly decide to dump the sugarwork and start making tacos and moles. Apparently, working with fondant wasn't his true calling; in a recent tv interview, he said he was forced into the job. Today, he's got three restaurants in NY, all in a Mexican vein: Empellon Cucina, Empellon El Pastor, and the one we visited, Empellon Taqueria.  I say a Mexican "vein," because while the menu is full of tacos and such, Stupak isn't religious about authenticity. That's fine, because what he creates with the building blocks of Mexican cuisine is pretty tasty.

The menu states, in all caps, "Empellon strongly discourages the use of cell phones, unless you're posting food porn on Instagram. #Empellon." It would be much easier to post food porn had the restaurant not dimmed the lights several times during the course of our meal. So, sorry for the crappy pics. By the time we received the queso fundido, it was pretty damn dark in the restaurant.

The three of us (Mr Minx, our friend David, and I) started out with a couple of cocktails, a ¿Porque No? and a Spicy Cucumber margarita. Both are made with blanco tequila and a hint of spice; one flavored with pineapple and the other drink with cucumber. I think I preferred the spicy cucumber, and I don't ordinarily enjoy cucumber in a cocktail. Despite the jalapeno tincture, the cocktail was more herbal and refreshing than spicy.

¿Porque no? with Cimarron Blanco tequila, pineapple, cilantrom serrano tincture.  Mr Minx had the spicy cucumber margarita, made with Pueblo Viejo Blanco tequila, fresh cucumber, jalapeno tincture, and chile salt.
With our cocktails we enjoyed a bowl of chunky guacamole and chips, accompanied by two of the restaurants seven salsas--a creamy smoked cashew and a spicy puree featuring chiles de arbol. Between the three items, we had a nice palette of spicy and creamy flavors to ease our palates into the meal.

Guacamole with two salsas, smoked cashew (front) and arbol (back left)
I personally wanted to go vegetarian that night, so we started with an order of celery root with toasted peanuts. Garnished with celery leaves, the dish was a south of the border interpretation of the celery sticks stuffed with peanut butter most of us enjoyed as children. The celery root was lightly cooked to tenderness and topped with something the menu called salsa macha. Originating from Veracruz, salsa macha is commonly a thick oily sauce made with chiles and peanuts (or other nuts) vaguely reminiscent of the chile oil one finds at Chinese dim sum restaurants. The sauce in this dish seemed closer to a Thai peanut sauce, as it was lighter in color, and not particularly hot. Nevertheless, the components together made for a tasty dish.

Celery root, toasted peanuts, salsa macha
We tried three types of tacos between us. I went for the Brussels sprouts version, served with an almond sauce and toasted almonds. The small sprouts were decidedly meaty and a surprisingly good filling for a corn tortilla.

Brussels sprouts, toasted almonds, almendrado
David ordered the chicken tacos, which he said were excellent.

Chicken, black kale, crema, salsa verde 
And Mr Minx got the short rib pastrami tacos. As I said earlier, Stupak isn't all that concerned with authenticity, and if it works as well and is delicious as this, who needs it?  These tacos were like a classic pastrami sandwiches, mustard and all, but in taco form. Which leads me to wonder - what can't be served as a taco?

Shortrib pastrami, pickled cabbage, mustard seed salsa
Still feeling a bit peckish, we ordered the queso fundido topped with black trumpet mushrooms and guaje seeds (guaje is an inedible pod that produces seeds not unlike pumpkin seeds). The rich chihuahua cheese and delicate mushrooms worked equally well scooped onto tortilla chips as on the accompanying flour tortillas.

While I wasn't so crazy about the continually dimming lights and the din that escalated as more young and pretty patrons arrived, I was glad to have had the opportunity to taste Alex Stupak's Mexican stylings. Everything we tried was delicious, and I look forward to checking them out again.

Empellon Taqueria
230 West 4th Street
New York, NY 10014
(212) 367-0999

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