When pastry whiz Alex Stupak announced this fall that he was leaving WD-50 to open a taqueria, the food world at-large scratched its head. Why would someone with Stupak’s pedigree leave the kingdom of molecular gastronomy (or modernist cuisine, or whatever the term du jour might be) to sling tacos in the West Village? So we sat down with him to find out what inspired this sudden and unexpected move. Stupak explains, “My goal was to open a restaurant of my own by the age of thirty.” He had worked not just in the kitchens of WD-50 and Alinea, but also staged at some of the finest restaurants in the world including, Copenhagen’s Noma. While most assumed he’d continue along that path, he wasn’t convinced.
While planning his wedding in East Los Angeles, where his wife was born, he fell in love with Mexican food of the Cali/TexMex mash-up variety. During a meal with his mother-in-Law, he decided that if he was going to open a restaurant, it had to be one where he would enjoy eating three meals a day. For Stupak, Mexican food hit that mark and during that meal, Empellon was born.
Stupak and his wife, Lauren Resler (Babbo), who happens to be a pastry chef herself, traveled to Mexico to do research and discover authentic regional cooking. They began their trip in Oaxaca (although the food is not necessarily Oaxacan bound), where they fell in love with ingredients, like mezcal (a smoky, distilled tequila-like alcohol made from the maguey plant, a form of agave), flying ants and grasshoppers. They loaded up on ideas, food and even artwork to bring back for their new restaurant.
Empellon is a 90-seat eatery, furbished with black leather banquettes and modern Mexican artwork as well as personal photos of the couple’s friends and family (including a picture near the kitchen of their pet cat). The menu is organized into menu items described as “for the table,” like guacamole with chips and two salsas and chicharons (fried pork rinds), and starters like sopes (round cornmeal cakes topped with cheese, meats and salsas) and ceviches. For such a large space, the dining room is surprisingly cozy enough to settle into a few plates and some mezcal with a chaser of housemade sangrita.
The entrée section is dominated by a half dozen, taco preparations, everything from chicken with greens and chorizo to beer-braised tongue and carnitas (roasted pork). There’s also a selection of closely curated plates, like octopus (pictured above) with parsnips, sesame seeds and salsa papanteca. Stupak’s favorite is the lamb barbacoa because, “it’s a not-so-traditional spin on a traditional dish with the addition of mezcal and lack of a barbecue pit.” Instead the lamb is seasoned with guajillo chile and salt before being wrapped first in avocado then banana leaves and steamed overnight. Empellon’s become a real family affair. Ms. Resler’s brother, Matt Resler, came out from LA to work as the bar manager, and on the day we spoke with Stupak, his father was in town lending a hand. For further reading on Empellon and the menu, head to Eater or Grub Street.
Address: 230 West 4th St., at W. 10th St.
RG Writer: Lauren Bloomberg