This is not your average Mexican Taco joint. In fact, Empellon Cocina completely transforms and contradicts any preconceived notions about traditional Mexican fare. With spectacular high end ingredients like Sea Urchin appearing in Guacamole, and Lobster smothered in Con Queso, you might think that Alex Stupek (WD~50) might be mad. He probably is. But it’s his madness and bold innovation that has radically changed the East Village culinary scene, attracting beautiful and well-dressed individuals that are willing to get a little bit messy.
The restaurant has a warm inviting vibe, especially on a perfect summer night. Large glass, floor to ceiling windows were wide open in the front, allowing for the light breezes to permeate throughout the entire space. I arrived early, at 7pm, taking a seat at the bar while I waited for Amber to arrive. Everyone around me was unusually friendly, offering seats and advice, as we all watched in awe as the trendy, tattooed bartender mixed and poured various tequila filled concoctions.
When Amber arrived, we opted to take the open seat right next to the open window. Our location gave the feel of sitting of outdoor seating, without the interference of the crowds on the street. We started to look over the menu, beginning to debate our plan of culinary action. On the bottom of the menu, a little sign made me giggle and realize that this was my perfect kind of restaurant.
We glanced over the cocktail menu, trying to understand the unique combinations including a margarita with Vanilla, Pepper and Butterscotch. Ultimately, we decided to be slightly plain, ordering the simple house margarita, described as bright, clean and fresh. And let the #FoodPorn at #Empellon begin.
As described, fresh ingredients were used to create the House Margarita. Tangy, tart lime juice is mixed with the light tequila, which tasted better then most variations you would find in any generic liquor store. Tequila is their specialty, and therefore even the simplest of cocktails is elevated by prime quality ingredients. The half salted rim allows for you to either enjoy the saltiness or steer away, opting to sip from the other side of the glass. Simply put, this was a great margarita.
Next, it was time to turn to the food portion of the evening. Amber had been to Empellon Cocina’s sister location, Empellon Taqueria, and raved about the guacamole and ‘salsa’ that they create here. Like I mentioned earlier, everything is not what it seems, and the salsas served here epitomizes that logic. We decided to order the Smoked Cashew Salsa, along with the Bacon Guacamole paired with the Pepper Salsa. The dips are served with Masa Crisps, instead of traditional chips.
Sprinkled on top of the freshly prepared guacamole, crisp pieces of bacon add a smokiness and crunch. The soft, ripe avocado mixture has a subtle heat, leaving the lingering taste of chile on your tongue, until you dig back in. The real game changer happens to be the Masa Crisps. These crackers are hand prepared using a corn mixture which is spread thick onto baking sheets until they achieve a crumbling, crisp texture. They taste almost fried, giving off an illusion so whimsical that you’re left stretching your head with one hand, as the other digs back into the basket for more crisps. The guacamole is served with an accessible spreading tool, designed just for creating the ideal layer on top of the crisps. It’s wildly addicting, and I can hear my Mom’s voice in my head yelling “save room for dinner,” but be warned; it’s hard to stop.
The most confusing part of this appetizer is the salsa, which by the looks of it, isn’t really even salsa at all.
The texture reminds me of a pureed hummus, slightly thick while still dripping off the spoon with ease. The smoked cashew salsa was simply incredible. The mixture combined salty, sweet and smokey with a little touch of heat from the chipotle. On top of the Masa Crisp or eaten alone, the ‘salsa’ is out of control. I wish all salsa looked and tasted like this, even if it’s slightly less vegetable filled then the traditional version. The black pepper was good, but I’m not the biggest fan of pepper, so it was really all about the smoked cashew.
For the adventurous individual, a tasting of all seven salsa flavors is available. The couple next to us tried this option, and the vivid colors and different flavors listed on the menu seemed like something worth trying. For my next trip, cocktails and salsa would make a phenomenal evening.
This trip, however, needed to be slightly more adventurous then just trying a variety of salsas. We debated what to order and after selecting three dishes, the waiter said we had ordered just the right amount of food. For the first dish, we decided to start with the Razor Clam Ceviche.
Presentation alone will take your breath away, with the beautiful color of the guava and pickled onions, along with the shape and design of the razor clam adding dimension to the dish. Then you take a first bite, and are even further blown away. With a little fork, designed to fit perfectly between the ridges of the clam, you scoop up all of the flavors into one bite. The acidity of pickled onion stands out first, followed by the subtle sweetness of the guava. Next the horseradish aioli gives a little bit of heat. Finally, the thinly sliced pieces of razor clam come through, as all of the other flavors continue to linger on your tongue. Towards the end, I found myself neglecting the fork and slurping the clam shell to enjoy all of the fishy juices with the ceviche. This is a must try dish.
Next, we trusted the recommendation of the waiter trying the adventurous Melted Tetilla Cheese with Lobster.
Conventional wisdom states that seafood and cheese is an immediately culinary crime. Once again, Empellon defies all traditional rules. The succulent, juicy lobster is smothered in an creamy queso sauce, with subtle bites of tomato freshening up the dish; talk about decadence. The corn tortilla acts as a vehicle to mellow out the cheese and lobster mixture, which tastes like the most delicious quesadilla one could even imagine. I have to disclose, once the limited amount of lobster is quickly devoured (and it will be gone fast), it’s a little difficult to be left with just plain cheese sauce. While the sauce is delicious, after having tasted it with the lobster, it obviously falls short. Regardless, I dare you to find a comparable dish elsewhere.
Finally, we concluded with one of the tacos. A whimsical play on Jewish deli, similar to that of Red Farm. Pastrami seems to be very hot right now in every culinary scene.
Short Rib Pastrimi should be the next big thing. I would buy containers in bulk to put between slices of rye bread and smother with Grey’s Poupon. This taco is out of this world. Mind you, at this point in the meal I was absurdly full, but the bites of taco could make any Jewish Bubbie wish she had created this herself. Whole grain mustard salsa adds a burst of flavor with each bite with a desirable grainy texture. The pickled onions adds a light acidity and tanginess to the taco, stopping it from being overly heavy. It’s a great play on traditional pastrami sandwiches.
I sat back after the meal, beyond full trying to decide with Amber what dish was our favorite and if we could have eliminated something to be content. However, everything was absolutely delicious and unforgettable. My only advice would be to come with more friends to share more dishes and to eat to your hearts content. This place will be a hot spot for years to come because the food is out of this world. Everything is playful and they make sure you can’t find this dish elsewhere. Technique is key. And I already want to come back and experiment with more of the phenomenal dishes at Emepllon Cocina.
Empellon Cocina – 105 1st Avenue – New York, NY
Location: East Village, NY
Perfect For: Impressing Foodies, Girls’ Night Out, Date Night, Casual Meal, First Dates
Reservations: Recommended via OpenTable
Favorite Dishes: Razor Clam Ceviche, Cashew Salsa, Guacamole (any kind), Short Rib Pastrami Taco