Remember back in 2011 when Alex Stupak, the acclaimed avant-garde pastry chef at the likes of Alinea and wd-50, confused everyone by putting down his baking pans and opening a full-blown Mexican restaurant, Empellón? "It's what I like to eat," he explained at the time, and as it turns out Stupak's take on tacos, gauc, and queso fundido is what a lot of other people like to eat, too.
Last week Stupak unveiled his fourth currently-operating restaurant in the Empellón empire—the name translates, roughly, to "push"—an expanded, fancier version of his East Village counter-service spot, Al Pastor. Located near Grand Central in the Pod 39 hotel lobby, Stupak's second Al Pastor takes over the sprawling space that once held Salvation Taco, and though the footprint is the same, the team has brought an entirely new design to the rooms, with bright, colorful murals, muted couches and banquettes, and plenty of art.
The main dining and drinking area, which you can enter right from the street or through the Pod's "futuristic" lobby, is dominated by a bar on one side (note that they push the margaritas hard here) with a row of elevated seating on the other. Keep going and you'll hit the second dining room, overseen by a menacing mantis; a spacious lounge made cozy by a fake fireplace; a small game room with foosball and air hockey; and what appears to be a rentable private-events space. There's room for lots of tequila-drinking people, and it's easy to imagine this place getting really loud.
Given its commuter-friendly location that's also literally inside of a hotel, the crowd at this Empellón may be destined to be dominated by non-NYC residents. The menu here offers many popular dishes from the East Village location—Cheeseburger Tacos, Pork Fried Rice, Chicken Wings, Nachos, and, of course, the Al Pastor, or spit-grilled pork with pineapple—but there are also about a dozen new things to try. I gleefully feasted on five of the latter the other night. Here's a quick report.
- Fish Tempura Tacos Don't let these visually underwhelming beige blobs fool you, there's a ton of tender, flavorful fish beneath that batter. Two types of sauce—a slightly spicy green one and a tangy mayo base—as well as fresh slaw add considerable pleasure as well.
- Devil Eggs On the other end of the color spectrum, these flaming red and ominously grey hard-boiled ova are more than just an Insta-gimmick: pile on some of that crunchy charred-onion relish, add as much of the potent Habanero Salsa as you dare, and pop one of these bad boys in your mouth for an intense rush of flavor.
- Fried Chicken Sandwich Talented chefs rarely mess up a fried chicken sandwich, and Stupak keeps the winning streak alive with this crisp, juicy bird topped with cucumber and creamy, garlicky toum on a potato roll. Heck he could probably launch a whole new franchise based on this beauty.
- Sweet Potato (Nuts!) Tacos The "Nuts!" here are corn nuts, so there's a lot of crunch going on, the sweet potatoes are firm and diced, and the salsas, of course, are superb.
- Crunchy Corn Masa Ice Cream Bar Ironically, given Stupak's history of making phenomenal desserts, this Eskimo-Pie-ish creation was the only real miss of the night for me, tasting mostly just "cold."
Other dishes only available at the Pod 39 Al Pastor include Smoked Chicken Tacos, Broiled Oysters, Kibbeh, a pairs of salads (one called Green, the other Red), and Pineapple With Five Other Flavors which I hear is fun and delicious.
Empellón Al Pastor at Pod 39 is located at 145 East 39th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues and is open daily for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (212-865-5800; empellon.com)