Why These Nachos Are Worth $30 a Plate
Would you pay $30 for a plate of nachos?
Your answer should be generally be negative, unless you’re one of those people who likes their food dusted in gold. (In which case, have we got the $1,000 ice cream sundae for you.)
There is an exception to this rule, however: I’m here to make a case for the $30 nachos at the month-old Empellon Midtown, the creation of Alex Stupak, who reigns over a small Empellon empire. Each outpost focuses on a different aspect of Mexican food, from the forward-thinking Cocina to the casual, taco-centric al Pastor. But for years, Stupak resisted the calls to serve nachos.
At his midtown location, Stupak decided that if he was going to do nachos, he would go big. Here, they’re stocked with chunks of crab and tongues of sea urchin, drizzled with a "queso" made from more uni and pureed with softened butter to create a creamy, slightly tangy sauce. Seafood nachos sound like something to be avoided at most restaurants; they are terrific here because the smoky flavor of the roasted garlic and chipotle salsa pulls the dish together. Plus the thick, crunchy chips, made from house-made tortillas (which are, in turn, made from ground-in-house masa) have a compelling corn flavor that goes so well with the sweet seafood.
What to Order
The crab nachos aren’t the best thing at Empellon. That title probably goes to the spit-roasted beef tacos, stuffed with juicy fragments from a gyro-styled, mountain-sized hunk of beef shoulder. (The shoulder, layered with dry-aged beef fat, slowly spins in the restaurant kitchen’s window and acts as a powerful magnet for people walking down 53rd Street.) Also be sure to get a side of hash brown tacos—little tortillas stuffed with crispy strands of potato, roasted poblanos, and a sharp, tomatillo ketchup. It's a powerful argument for steak and potatoes.
But you want to get the nachos, and not just because they’re so tasty. They’re also an exceptional deal, not just at the new Empellon—where prices reflect midtown rents (tacos start at $14 for two)—but also in that neighborhood. A lot of valuable seafood is scattered on top of those tortilla chips. Specifically, Stupak arranges a dozen pieces of premium Hokkaido uni on each serving, along with three ounces of Maryland lump crabmeat. If you ordered 12 pieces of sea urchin sushi at the nearby Sushiya, the cost would be $72; at Blue Fin, across town, it would come to $118.
Stupak says he’s not losing money on the dish, though he admits that its food costs are dangerously high. He makes up for the loss with other dishes, particularly the guacamole and the seven-salsa snack that servers offer as soon as you sit down. “Avocados aren’t cheap,” said Stupak. “But if you can have guacamole and salsas on every table for $21, that definitely pays the rent. Well, it’s not there yet, but we’re trying.”
Midtown Dining, Reimagined
The chef designed the nachos, and the entire menu, to riff on dishes you typically find in midtown restaurants. The nachos are a Mexican-inflected take on a seafood platter. “It’s a fun dish,” Stupak noted. “Midtown dining rooms are historically meant to be fancy, but when fancy chefs put burgers on their menu, it’s what people want to eat. I wanted to make nachos like a cool, sophisticated but fun, midtown dish.” It’s one of the best sellers among the starters.
Unsurprisingly, Stupak has no qualms about serving expensive chips and cheese. “I love dishes that seem emotionally unsophisticated, that you might feel guilty for ordering. But then there you are at the bar, eating $30 nachos, drinking a $15 cocktail, and you’re happy. It’s not even a money thing; it’s an easing of cultures, it’s giving Mexican cuisine an edge. If I hadn’t taken this space, someone would be serving a burger at this bar. And we’re not serving a burger. Ever.”