Empellon Cocina is not a Mexican restaurant.
If you’re looking for a big, messy plate of chicken enchiladas for cheap, head elsewhere. The East Village may be Mary Ann’s territory, but at Empellon Cocina, chef Alex Stupak doesn’t do enchiladas – or messy, or cheap. What he does do is use Mexico as a jumping off point for incredibly creative, globalized cuisine.
Take the guacamole ($12). There are avocados, cilantro and lime, yes, but also pistachios, and instead of regular tortilla chips, it’s served with masa chips as light and crisp as a rice cracker. Already you’ve touched down in Japan and the Middle East, and you’ve only had a few bites.
Or the Ruby Red Shrimp ($18) poised on the crest of wavy masa crackers. Inside those crackers, there’s an orange cream that looks as simple as pimento cheese, but it’s actually a delicious sea urchin whipped cream that takes the ocean flavor to haute cuisine levels.
A tetilla queso fundido ($16) breaks rules left and right. The intense stewed tomato sauce flecked with oregano on top points towards Italy, but there you would never find big lumps of lobster submerged in so much mild melted cheese. It’s decadent comfort food from all over the map.
The premise at Empellon Cocina is Mexican food served in small-plates tapas style, and nowhere is the merger more apparent than in the squid with potatoes, chorizo mayonnaise and black mole ($16). Spanish pimenton flavors the mayonnaise, and the mole has all the complexity and mystery of the best Mexican sauces. Squid is julienned into spaghetti-like strips and seasoned with what seems to be a hot and smoky chili salt that works its way into several dishes and drinks here.
Oaxacan-style baby back ribs ($17) may sound rustic, but the umami beef stew flavor of the deboned, flaky meat plus the plantains is quite sophisticated.
The dining room here is as blank a canvas as the plate. White walls and a ceiling sculpted into graceful curves form the backdrop for a trio of exquisite Day of the Dead-themed paintings by artist Sylvia Ji, and the traditional eagle and snake imagery of the Mexican coat of arms reinterpreted by a graffiti artist. The mixed crowd the night we visited ran the gamut from young sports stars to ladies of a certain age in funky glasses. You won’t have to get to know your neighbors too well, though: unlike at Stupak’s other restaurant Empellon Taqueria, where the noise level is deafening, discreet acoustic panels set into the ceiling here balance out the noise of the crowd and the indie rock mix on the stereo.
All of the best dishes here demonstrate a careful balance between salty and sweet, but other creations can go too far in one direction. The gordita with poached egg, plantains and pineapple ($16) is a miraculous Hot Pocket of construction, but it could use some salt to balance out the sweet.
The cocktails too often hit one note over the head. Though the Hecho en Humo contains no fewer than five ingredients, including “smoke” and “Mexican Coca-Cola reduction,” reducing the Coke into a syrup turns out to be an unnecessary flourish, because the drink definitely doesn’t need to be any sweeter. And even if you like the smoky flavor of mezcal, sparkling cava is no match for it. The Oaxaca ’62 cocktail, a combination of these two, is all smoke.
Better to keep it simple. The margaritas are another story: excellent and made better with the addition of mezcal or reposado tequila ($12-15). These are worth ordering two or three of.
Though the atmosphere at Empellon Cocina is casual, the attentive service is on par with the relatively expensive price tag. This is particularly a relief with tapas-style meals, since the pacing has to be right and dishes should be cleared and replaced fairly regularly, as they are here.
We blew a lot of cash at Empellon Cocina, including $17 on one drink alone, the Ilegal Reposado mezcal – the perfect digestif. If you order the generous portion of guacamole, you’ll probably only need two dishes per person to share, or you could stick to beer or wine, much of which is from Mexico. But it would be a shame to cut costs by missing out on those margaritas altogether. In this last regard, fortunately, Empellon Cocina is very much a Mexican restaurant.
105 First Avenue, between East 6th and East 7th Streets
New York, NY
Menus available online.