Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Empellón - Alex Stupak's satisfying West Village tacos

Alex Stupak had enjoyed success as a pasty chef at groundbreaking haunts such as Alinea and, more recently, WD-50, so his announcement that he would open a Mexican joint was understandably met with great buzz around these parts. Last night was the official opening night of his new place, dubbed Empellón, so I wandered over tonight to try it out.
I had been craving good tacos for a while, as they are woefully underrepresented in NY, at least at places easy to find out about, or just plain find you way to anyway. (Excellent burritos and New Orleans fare are the only things I know of that just can't be found in New York, I know not why.) Tonight, anyway, Stupak was able to give me my fix, specifically with his beer braised tongue tacos.
The charming space was booked when I walked in, but I was able to secure a spot at the bar where they serve the full menu. I chose to start with a cocktail after perusing the interesting list, choosing the "¿Por Que No?" cocktail with Espolón Silver tequila, Seranno, Cilantro, and Pineapple. As you can see, it came with a sidecar with the portion of the drink that did not fit in the glass. It was a well balanced drink with a hint of heat and herbal notes from the muddled pepper and cilantro; a nice start.

There are some fun cocktails on Empellón's list, I next tried the "Drunk Monk", an obvious choice since I'm a sucker for both Chartreuse and new-to-me ingredients, and I had never heard of Hoja Santa, which the menu accurately described as an aromatic herb reminiscent of anise and sassafras. The drink was shaken with the herb and then garnished with an additional crumble, and the hoja santa played very nicely with the vegetal chartreuse.
I had read that griddled head cheese tacos might be on offer, but they were not on the menu tonight. It's just as well, because I had my heart set on the lamb barbacoa tacos, as well as the beer braised tongue tacos. It was all I could do to not order the Chicharon plate, resisting the head cheese as well would have proved overpowering to my resolve I am sure. Those items will live until another day when I shall return to eat them. Tonight's menu had plenty of good looking items to choose from.
Mustering all my will power to avoid ordering the Chicharon plate (labeled "for the table", so it would be harder to justify), I ordered a plate of each of the barbacoa and tongue tacos. Despite an early indication that the tacos might be sold individually, for the time being at least the are sold by the plate with three tacos, no mixing and matching. This policy of course is perfectly understandable for a young restaurant still finding its footing, no need to overly complicate things. The barbacoa tacos arrived first, with green olives and I believe cotija cheese. While they lacked the visceral lusciousness I enjoyed in the Texas hill country gas station barbacoa, the flavor was good and the lamb was a nice twist. While I would have preferred a bit more fat and rendered connective tissue, these were enjoyable nonetheless. I'm not sure if one could even source enough lamb heads around here to get enough off cut meat for the number of tacos they will probably serve. I would be remiss if I did not mention the top notch tortillas here as well.
The real winner tonight though was the beer braised tongue tacos. Moist, tender, lucious, just a hint of sweetness but slightly more than a hint of heat. These were what I was hoping for.
I did try one additional item, which was sent out gratis due to a slight delay on my tacos plates. They sent out the cauliflower salad with spinach, almonds, and chorizo vinaigrette. I would not have ordered it, but I will next time; it was delicious. The cauliflower was expertly roasted and had a hearty richness.
All in all, I look forward to going back with a bigger party to try more items from the menu, and definitely to get more of that tongue. And I'm always glad to have a place I can pop in to dine at the bar and enjoy an interesting cocktail or two.