(Accompanying food porn, here: http://www.girleatscity.com/2011/04/e...)
When it rains, it pours. The short stretch of West 4th St., between 7th Ave. and Charles St., has been richly blessed with wonderful, new restaurants as of late (even as it's been cursed with Con Ed's endless drilling).
Alex Stupak's Empellón opened just a few weeks ago, in mid March, in the former Chow Bar space on West 4th Street, almost directly across the street from Gabriel Stulman's also excellent, recently-opened Fedora (reviewed here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/775803). Stupak is better known as the former pastry chef at WD-50, where the desserts have always been well loved, even while savory dishes have sometimes been controversial. Empellón isn't really about desserts, though. Nor is it about molecular gastronomy. It is, at its core, a taco shop.
On a recent evening, two dining companions and I wandered in after an aborted attempt to dine at Fedora, as walk-ins. Not surprisingly, Fedora was swamped, and so was Empellón, but we were in luck at the latter -- great, good luck. A table of three had just cancelled their reservation and we were able to sit, immediately.
We started with a white tuna ceviche served with a beet and guava puree and a short rib sope with salsa roja of guajillo, roasted tomato and chipotle. The ceviche was dressed with a creamy, sweet, and not very acidic sauce, with a bit of crumbly white cheese (cotija, I think) and a few leaves of baby spinach. I don't usually prefer this style -- I really love the textural contrast of crisp vegetables and herbs in my ceviches -- but this version was very well made. Fish was sliced in generous, but not overly large chunks, and it was sushi grade (a good thing since there probably wasn't enough acid in the dish to "cook" the fish). I probably could've done without the cotija, which seems to top every dish that comes out of this kitchen.
The short rib sope was massive, really a meal in and of itself. The thick, toasty sope was fragrant and topped with an even thicker pile of tender, juicy shredded short rib. The short rib was robustly beefy and flavorful, though not highly seasoned. It came topped with cilantro, a few crescents of onion, more of that crumbly white cotija cheese, and a few dribbles of spicy salsa roja.
All of us ordered tacos as our mains. I had the beer-braised tongue with bacon and arbol chile salsa. The portion included three, single-layer corn tortilla tacos, generously topped with succulent, richly flavorful chunks of tongue cut in sizable chunks. The huge bites really allowed the "slippery", very tender texture of the tongue to take center stage -- and this was a beautiful thing. The salsa was very spicy hot and delicious, with a wee bit of smokiness, tempered by (you guessed it) more cotija. I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to spice, and had to pause for long periods between bites to let the chile cool on my tongue. But it was an exquisite pain.
My dining companions both had the lamb barbacoa tacos with salsa borracha (pasilla oaxaquena, orange juice, mezcal). These were pleasantly lamby, juicy and tender, with a faint hint of sweetness. The filling to tortilla ratio and the meat to vegetable ratio were a bit too high for my tastes -- but I could find no fault at all with the quality of each component. Tortillas were nicely toasted / griddled and the lettuces were fresh. I didn't detect the fat and collagen content present in other barbacoas I've tried, but the meat was very moist.
The cocktails we tried were fair to good. The Swedish Punsch (with Batavia-Arrack/Rum/Lemon/Black Tea/Black Cardamom/CO2) was my favorite: slightly smokey, spicy, dark and sweet -- mysterious and androgynous. It was almost heavy enough to be a meal.
I understand there's some controversy about the price of the tacos at Empellón. They are, admittedly, a bit high if you're looking at the food, alone. (We had excellent lengua, al pastor and carne enchillada tacos at an old favorite, Tulcingo del Valle, in Hell's Kitchen not long after our meal at Empellón, which ran us $2.75 a piece.) But if you consider the neighborhood and the classy digs, prices don't seem nearly as bad. We'll be back. Next time I want to try dessert.
50 Clinton Street, New York, NY 10002
Tulcingo del Valle
665 10th Ave, New York, NY 10036
230 W 4th St, New York, NY 10014