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We are pretty tough on Mexican food in this city. Only two restaurants have a rating of over 8.0 on Immaculate Infatuation, one being La Esquina, which is probably more about the experience than it is the food. To us, putting a couple of fancy tacos on a menu and charging twenty bucks doesn’t make for a good Mexican meal. And unfortunately, we don’t do the dirt cheap Mexican food here all that well either. New York just won’t ever win playing with a West Coast offense. We’re not built that way. Instead, we need to rely on the talent of our world class chefs. There’s no reason why Mexican food shouldn’t measure up to the rest of NYC dining. We’ve been desperate for something unique, something special and most importantly, something delicious. How is it possible its taken this long for someone to kill it with Mexican flavors? My friends, as one of my favorite bands once sang, there is hope for us.
This glimmer of hope we speak of is Empellon Cocina. It’s located on what is fast becoming one of our favorite restaurant strips, sandwiched between Upstate Beer & Oyster Bar and Maharlika on First Avenue. The first time around, we were a little hard on former wd~50 pastry chef Alex Stupak’s foray into gourmet Mexican food, Empellon, this restaurant’s predecessor in the West Village. More fancy tacos. Yay. However, things have changed. Not only is Empellon Cocina an upgrade, it’s taken Mexican food to new levels that New York City has never seen before. Finally, we have ourselves a phenomenal Mexican restaurant. Thank you, Mr. Stupak.
There’s a lot to love at Empellon Cocina. This isn’t the traditional Mexican cuisine that you’re used to, this is an exciting display of Mexican flavors that will blow you away. The food is adventurous yet approachable, and dishes like the roasted carrots with mole poblano, and the gordita with smoked plantain, chorizo and egg yolk are some of the better things we’ve tasted in recent memory. On top of that, the service is flawless, and the soundtrack is great. We’ll happily listen to Black Keys and Modest Mouse album cuts all night long. The design and layout of the restaurant is also really cool, with a big circular bar that houses all kinds of tequila and mezcal, and some crazy artwork on the walls to keep things interesting and a little weird. It’s fun, it’s loud and it’s going into our heavy rotation immediately. You should get it into yours too.
Photo Credit: Daniel Krieger
Guacamole with Pistachios and Masa Crisps
This is easily the most creative, most delicious, and most memorable chips and guac we’ve had in this city. The “masa crisps” (chips) taste amazingly fresh, and have a subtle sweetness to them. The guacamole is a bit different than you’re used to, almost like a chunky avocado salad with pistachios, corn, onions, peppers and cilantro in the mix.
Normally we wouldn’t give salsa it’s own spot on the food rundown, but since pretty much every salsa we had here was incredible, it earned it’s own space. The smoked cashew salsa particularly memorable – it’s creamy, sweet, and smoky. Definitely order that one.
Roasted Carrots with Mole Poblano
Carrots are so hot right now. They’re popping up on menus all across town. These come served with a mole poblano paste , yogurt and watercress, which may sound weird, but is 100% awesome. Honestly, we never knew carrots could taste this good.
Gordita with Smoked Plaintain, Chorizo and Egg Yolk
This is a perfect example of a chef showing some smarts and skills. Gorditas (corncakes stuffed with things) sometimes have the problem of being a little too dry. Adding a runny egg yolk combats that problem. Put the gooey gordita atop a bed of smoked plaintain and chorizo and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success. Good lord is this dish good.
Tamal Colado (Yucatan style strained tamal, chicken, achiote)
Apparently they know how to make a tamal in the Yucatan. This had such a soft, sweet, fine texture it almost tasted like panna cotta. It made us want to go on vacation to the Yucatan Peninsula immediately.
Tongue Sopes with Refried Beans and Salsa de Arbol
Two bite wonders. Corn masa, beef tongue, hot sauce. These need be on your table.
Manila Clams with Menudo and Puffed Beef Tendon
This was the only dish we found to be a bit suspect. The sauce was excellent – a crazy concoction of tripe stew with crispy beef tendons – but the clams were off. You can’t win with bad clams. We’d give it another shot though. It could be a great dish with good clams.
Cod with Surryano Ham and Chilaquiles Verdes
This might have been our favorite thing on the menu. A personal pan of seared cod with ham and fried tortillas slathered in green salas. The flavors are amazing. Exotic, exciting and addicting. We couldn’t inhale this fast enough. They make this dish with scallops too, which is equally enjoyable.
Hen of the Woods Mushrooms with Black Bean Vermicelli
Sure, this may be a vegetarian dish, but it’s hearty and almost has a meaty flavor to it. We thoroughly enjoyed.
Duck with Tinga Poblana
If you’re going to go with meat, this is the thing to get. The slices of slightly fatty, yet perfectly pink, moist, flavorful duck are served with roasted tomato, chorizo and chipotle. Again, excellent use of flavor. Duck isn’t something you see on Mexican menus, so this was a treat.
Definitely cleanse your palate with the Pineapple Empanadas. We loved the creativity here and enjoyed the refreshing dessert empanada with pomegranate molasses, crema, and coconut. If you like orange, then order the Vanilla Marquesote with orange, piloncillo and café con leche ice cream. Again, you have to like orange as it’s all kinds of citrusy.
The entire menu looked awesome, and if the Slow Poached Eggs with Toasted Challah and Green Chorizo Gravy is any indication, you’re in good hands. This was nuts, in the best way possible. The slow poached eggs were inside the challah bread and smothered in a smokey green sauce. Yum.