Alex Stupak used to run pastry kitchens so high-tech they could’ve been classified by the Defense Department. Now he’s selling $5 tacos.
No more hydrocolloids, rotary evaporators or liquid nitrogen. Stupak served some of the country’s best sweets at Alinea and WD-50. He’s given up $140 tasting menus in favor of Mexican food at Empellon in Manhattan’s West Village.
It’s as if Ken Burns ditched documentaries to reboot the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise. I’m happy to report that a few of Stupak’s sopes, ceviches and tacos are very good. Other items require fixing.
This is no chips and salsa joint. I know this because a waiter shook his head when I asked for chips and salsa. The chef’s ambitious are high -- to embrace, as he says on his website, “the depth of Mexican cuisine for what it is while pushing toward what it might become.”
Translation: You can only get chips and salsa with guacamole. But the guacamole, $10, is a mediocre mash of avocado with none of the seasoning or depth of flavor you get, apologies, at Dos Caminos.
Fair enough. We’ve grown accustomed (or resigned) to paying for excellent artisanal bread at casual spots. So I’ll support Stupak’s intransigence -- just as soon as he starts making better food.
Right now, it’s a work in progress. If you want great guac, go to the original home of Mexican street food raised to more refined heights, Rosa Mexicano.
Salt, hot sauces and salsas belong on the table. Instead they must be requested from the kitchen. How very fine-dining. And how very frustrating, since many dishes lack sodium, spice or acid. Chicharron -- pork rinds whose flavor is as monochromatic as their color -- leave enough oil on the hands to grease a pig.
There is redemption. Those $8 chicharron come with a Veracruz sauce, bitter and briny. Busboys try to remove the unfinished condiment from your table; resist. Spoon it over the dry, stringy, short-rib tamales, should you accidentally order them.
Tequila-cured salmon with sangrita evokes the fishiness of an old tackle box and the generic flavors of supermarket salsa. Stupak, a chef who’s “only slightly less intense than a Marine,” an Empellon staffer told me, shouldn’t be letting some of this food leave the kitchen. Long Island duck breast arrived overcooked and carried a foul aftertaste.
On a recent evening, the bartender advised patrons to arrive late to avoid high noise levels. “It doesn’t help that it’s all hard surfaces inside,” he said.
Indeed, even understanding the wait staff can be a challenge amid the din. Perhaps aware of this, the servers sometimes fail to describe the multiple and complex components of, say, your turbot entree.
There are mustard greens and pumpkin seed puree, but you’ve stopped eating by now because the filets are so over-salted you end up chugging your sparkling Gruner Veltliner.
Empellon is solid for snacks. Start off with white tuna ceviche. Just the right amount of luscious oil seeps out, softening the sweet slap of guava puree.
Follow up with fried masa cakes anointed with the smoky kiss of chipotle-and-tomato-simmered meatballs. Tlatonile, a rich chili-sesame sauce native to Mexico’s Huatusco region, turns sweetbreads into de facto General Tso’s chicken, a good thing.
Wash down the grub with sour margaritas. The bracing libations omit the traditional orange liquor, a clever move that makes them tequila daiquiris. The reposado shines through with just a little agave nectar and lime; no Cointreau or Grand Marnier get in the way of things.
Now that the palate is primed, have a few tacos (two for $12). Lamb barbacoa is the right call; salsa borracha (Oaxacan chilies, orange juice) counters the rich meat. Scotch eggs -- deep fried with chorizo -- are an impressively gooey version of the British pub staple.
Shrimp manage to keep their oceanic flavor while wrapped in hearty corn tortillas imported from the Nixtamal factory in Corona, Queens. Avoid the arid chicken tacos.
Desserts are awesome. They come courtesy of Lauren Resler, Stupak’s wife, who uses goat’s milk ice cream to balance the sugar shock in a tres leches cake. Even better is the cookie plate -- a mix of snickerdoodles, cochinitos and others. Which cookies are which? A member of the management team couldn’t answer with a straight face. Oops.
Rating: * 1/2
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Everything’s under $26.
Sound Level: Loud, 80-85 decibels.
Date Place: If you don’t want to hear your date.
Inside Tip: $5 tacos after midnight on weekends.
Special Feature: Amazing beer-braised tongue tacos.
Will I be back: For a late night snack.
Empellon is at 230 W Fourth Street. Information: +1-212-367-0999 or http://www.empellon.com/.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)