Review – Empellon Cocina

Don’t believe the hype. It’s a sequel. -Public Enemy

Hyped by many as the young Rick Bayless of the East Coast, Chef Alex Stupak left as pastry chef of wd-50 to open Empellon Taqueria in the West Village. A few years later, he opened to rave reviews of what many consider to be a Mexican crown jewel in the East Village. We’re talking about none other than Empellon Cocina, taco free edition. After numerous recommendations by friends, we finally caved and paid them a visit…

With an OpenTable reservation of 9:15pm, we arrived at 9pm. We are greeted at the door and told to wait. We are not offered a seat at the bar or a menu to look at. They are in the weeds during peak service and we get the short end of the stick. We notice a napkin dropped on the floor by the bar with zero attention by staff to such detail. We are seated unpromptly at 7:26pm. Our water is served to us 10 minutes later, with our order taken shortly thereafter.


1. Guacamole [with pistachios and masa crisps] ($12) – undersalted, we get the whole texture thing, but the pistachio did nothing for us, making an already rich dish even creamier. The masa crackers were unique and a hit.

2. Chicharrones [with 3 sauces – salsa verde, tomatillo-chipotle, salsa de arbol] ($8) – were bold and made their presence known, esp loved the salsa de arbol, off to a great start

3. Squid With Heirloom Potatoes, Chorizo Mayonnaise And Black Mole [chihuacle negro, 29 other ingredients] ($16) – beautiful presentation, a bit salty, nice plancha flavor on the calamari, missing some crunch, the potatoes had no business on the plate, the chorizo mayo was off the hook though.

4. Maine Diver Scallops [English Peas and Chilaquiles Verdes] (~$15) – lovely infusion of green pepper flavor in the scallop, the rest of the dish didn’t do anything for us and was bland with no heat. We tasted zero love in the ham (diced slab, no char) and the peas we barely knew existed. It’s hard to screw up a scallop/peas/bacon marriage, as it inherently sells itself when synergized but it didn’t work for us

5. Estofado de Costillas [Oaxacan style baby back ribs, plaintain, pineapple] (~$24) – a cacophony of flavors, all of which did not sit well, literally. Imagine the mystery brown sauce at a Chinese restaurant with lard mixed in. That’s what this tasted like. The sheer quantity of toasted sesame seeds put the richness factor of this dish over the top, with zero acid or additional textures to counterbalance it. The dagger in this dish was the biting into what seemed to be braised bone. Yes, bone. As not to seem delusional, we packed the rest of this mostly uneaten dish to go, as it was dark inside. Upon nuking it, we affirmed our earlier suspicion in broad daylight: what we bit into was actual overcooked bone which wasn’t removed before plating.

Silver lining: Yes, we noticed that the ancillary ingredients didn’t overshadow the main ingredient. The intent was there but the execution was paltry at best.

We saw at best 3 wait staff and 3 bussers. The wait staff moved franctically about and seemed rattled. We get that you want to play the law of averages to not pay wait staff to be idle, but come on. During prime time, everyone should be on their ‘A’ game if understaffed, or at least play it off well. There would be none of that. Case and point: When we asked twice about what kind of pepper was in the Chilaquiles, we were given the runaround. we were either taken for fools or the server had no idea what she was talking about. Granted, her Mexican accent was convincing so we asked a third time: ‘What kind of green pepper is in this dish?’ We point to the green pepper in the dish. We had a hunch and a bail out for the server, asking if they were poblano peppers. 1) She could have agreed ignorantly. 2) She could have found out for us. Instead, she said they were Chilaquiles, trying to convince us that it was the actual name of the pepper. At this point, we were about to break out sign language but alas, we were not familiar with it and finally gave up, thanking her in a forced polite smile.

P.S. Wait staff, please stop asking us how we liked it after each dish. We are going to give you the PC answer of ‘good’ when put on the spot like that.

Silver lining: If any, was the fact that there was some cooked pepper that fell on the table and was wiped promptly. Also, our water was refilled and our serveware was changed at least once.

THE VERDICT: 3/5 stars 

There’s something to be said about someone who lives outside their comfort zone, defying convention. Changing career paths? Wow. No tacos in a Mexican Restaurant? Double Wow. As commendable as those facts are, at the end of the day the food has to jive and the FOH has to be as meticulous as the BOH. We read an article today about how Chef Stupak doesn’t want to be a ‘whore’ to criticism and adapt to what people have to say. Well, that may be his demise as our dining companion commented how ‘their “non-cooked” food tasted better’. We’ll leave it at that.

Total came out to $46/pp after everything. Steep.

All pics after the jump

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