No chef has quite made an impact in recent years on the Mexican dining scene in New York City like Alex Stupak who started out as a pastry chef before opening up a series of Empellon restaurants pushing the boundaries of Mexico’s versatile cuisine by focusing, among other items, on tacos. Compared to the more modest downtown restaurants, the latest Empellon restaurant in Midtown is sort of a coming out party for chef Stupak, with an ambitiously large two-story space and a menu that seems to have matured. I have visited Empellon Cocina in East Village (which has recently shuttered) a couple of times before and while I appreciated the novelty of modern Mexican cuisine, I also felt the essence of what makes Mexican cuisine great was somewhat lacking. In Empellon Midtown, I can say that the kitchen has arrived at that optimal point where you know you’re getting Mexican food but with some unexpected twists here and there and makes your dining experience even more satisfying.
When my wife Jun and I showed up at the dining space on a Sunday evening, chef Stupak was at the kitchen with vigilant eyes at the staff working on various dishes. He looked somewhat imposing to us, but the food at the new Empellon has definitely loosened up compared to Empellon Cocina, free from the constant creative pressure to bring something no one had thought of. After 30 years of my life, I have somewhat become tired of nacos and for health reasons try to avoid them unless I’m really starving. If the crab nachos with sea urchin “queso” are what I need to eat for the next 30 years, I certainly wouldn’t mind. It was so delicious (in Jun’s words, predictability so given the use of sea urchin) that I couldn’t stop reaching my hands even after knowing that there are other dishes to come. Sticky rice tamales with red chile duck was also outstanding, and its portion perfect for a starter.
Since we were at a taco master’s restaurant, we had to try a couple, right? Jun and I slightly preferred the pastrami ones with mustard seed salsa over the one that came with lamb sweetbreads. We initially thought the pastrami might be too stuffy once we saw the enormous chunks of meat inside the taco shell, but the balance of flavor and texture in the meat was actually quite memorable, making us wonder why other chefs haven’t thought about this concept before. By the time the short rib confit arrived, we were pretty stuffed but after tasting a piece of short rib, I knew I had to put this beautiful dish into tortillas and get some extra bites. The juicy meat with picadillo garnish on the side was just so magnificent that we decided to pack the leftovers even though we rarely do that at a restaurant. Everyone is talking about the avocado dessert at Empellon Midtown, so even though both of us were barely breathing at that point from eating, we still needed to try it. It was undoubtedly a show-stopper, with colorful blend of lime and Eucalyptus yogurt that gave, in chef Stupak’s own word when he approached our table, a sensation of a delightful key lime pie. Not only was it beautiful in appearance (hence all the Instagram photos for the plate) but the complex yet refreshing flavor was absolutely wonderful.
Getting a reservation wasn’t too difficult and on a Sunday evening the second floor of the trendy dining space was mostly empty, making me wonder if the choice to go with a Midtown location was more driven by the objective of attracting corporate crowds during weekdays than locals looking for leisurely weekend meals. There is full bar with plenty of tequila and mezcal based cocktail options to complement your meal. I was pleasantly surprised by what Empellon Midtown brought to the table and would love to see how chef Stupak’s kitchen evolves over time. It really has made a big statement in terms of presenting delicious Mexican cuisine that can please anyone no matter what dish you order.
- Creativity: 8.5/10
- Execution: 9.0/10
- Ingredients: 8.0/10
- Flavor: 8.5/10
- Texture: 8.5/10
- Value: 8.0/10
Address: 510 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10022
Telephone: (212) 858-9365