New Yorkers, generally such finicky eaters, are so enamored of Mexican food they'll cut even the worst restaurants a break, guilelessly queuing up for diluted margaritas at places like Caliente Cab Co. These are excellent conditions for chefs and restaurateurs looking to open their own taquerias. But real connoisseurs of the country's unbastardized cooking are often left wanting.
Empellon, which opened recently just across the street from one of the worst offenders---the always-packed and never delicious Diablo Royale---seems on the surface a promising antidote to the faux-Mex epidemic. The restaurant marks the solo debut of former pastry chef Alex Stupak, best known for his cutting-edge sweets at wd~50 and Chicago's Alinea. Before making the leap into tacos, ceviches and queso fundidos, he traveled through Mexico, boning up on authentic street eats. But the country's deceptively simple cooking can take years---some might say generations---to really get right. And Stupak, it's clear from the food here, is just getting started.
Which is not to say his new restaurant's no fun. This is an attractive, buzzy space, with a colorful mural evoking abstract roses behind a lantern-lit bar. The service is warm, the margaritas fresh, the chunky guacamole well spiced. But the tacos and other antojito snacks mostly fall pretty flat. (When we visited there were no composed entres, though Stupak has since introduced a few.)
The chef, who has never cooked this stuff professionally before, fares best when he plays on his pastry strengths. Handling fresh masa like cake batter, he forms football-like molotes, filling them with an intriguing combo of smoked plantains, chipotle, brown butter and honey.
But his tortillas, alas, aren't made fresh in-house and his taco fillings need work---lamb barbacoa is bland and chewy, fried baby shrimp (now off the menu) dull and mealy, with none of the requisite acid or heat. Only the cured and braised beef tongue has any real flavor or depth, served with hunks of fingerling potatoes and an incendiary arbol chili salsa. The tacos, which come two to an order, are overstuffed to a fault---their proportions and pricing ($12--$17 per order) ought to be shrunken by half.
Given the chef's avant-garde roots, you might expect some edgier food. But the most experimental dishes are more odd than exciting: A one-dimensional white-tuna ceviche with pickled red onions, guava puree and beets tasted more Nordic than Mexican.
Desserts, not surprisingly, are much more impressive than everything else here. But Stupak, it turns out, doesn't have much to do with them. His wife, Lauren Resler, herself a talented pastry chef (Babbo), produces the restaurant's beautiful and elegant sweets, including a delicate passion fruit tart and a delicious, velvety chocolate flan with cinnamon ice cream and sweet-salty cocoa streusel. But it's not the desserts that keep this place packed. For the city's margarita-and-guacamole-mad hordes, even middling Mexican is better than none at all.
Eat this: Guacamole, plantain molotes, chocolate flan
Drink this: Though the classic margaritas ($12) are fresh, potent and balanced, more offbeat cocktails are often too sweet. The Drunk Monk ($13), a light and refreshing mix of chartreuse, tequila and minty hoja santa, is one notable exception.
Sit here: While the front dining room has great energy, the noise level can be deafening. For a more civilized evening, request a seat in the cozier back dining room by the kitchen.
Conversation piece: Though Alex Stupak has no Mexican heritage, his wife Lauren's great-grandmother hails from North-Central Mexico.
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