ART is risk. So too is business.
Straddling the two is Empellón, Alex Stupak’s brave new Mexican restaurant on that odd West Village corner where West Fourth Street meets West 10th Street, off Sheridan Square.
Mr. Stupak was until recently best known as a pastry chef, a modernist with an offset spatula and the maltodextrin blues. Tacos and tequila were far from his training and brief. As recently as a few years ago, in fact, he had never been to Mexico. Born in middle Massachusetts in 1980, he went to the Culinary Institute of America, then sprayed and spherified his way into high-profile jobs at Grant Achatz’s Alinea and Wylie Dufresne’s WD-50.
So what is he doing in a Mexican restaurant now, cooking savory food? “I guess you could say I have no business opening a Mexican restaurant,” he told Diner’s Journal in March.
He did it anyway. And a good thing, too: Empellón is one of the more captivating restaurants to open in recent months, with food that outstrips an atmosphere that is more frat-like than fine.
Drizzle some roasted tomato and olive salsa over a cloudlike shard of chicharrón and listen to it snap and crackle in response. Taste the briny, pliant, melting porkiness of the combination.
Now take a sip of smooth and elegant reposado tequila, and another of the sangrita Mr. Stupak serves with it: tomato juice thickened with pomegranate and kicked up with chipotle. Spoon melted Jack cheese topped with morels and garlicky guaje seeds into a warm tortilla from the Nixtamal shop out in Queens. Eat that pillow of intense and vaguely sweet earthiness: swoon.
Repeat. Yes. And again. And suddenly it does not matter that Genesis-era rock is playing loud in the background and a shouty office party next to your table is screaming as if one of them is on fire. The restaurant’s food and drink are a balm for nerves scraped raw by its din. Even when the room is half full, some will consider leaving before ordering even a chip. No one will come to talk quietly of friendship or grandchildren, finance or literature. But Empellón, which is a Spanish noun meaning “push,” is well on its way to somewhere good.
On the debit side of the ledger is that clattery dining room, which needs sound-dampening fabric or ceiling panels in much the same way Greece needs cash. The restaurant’s buxom list of tequilas and mezcals leads some customers to behavior that floats on the sunburned-tourist line between Tijuana bars and Amsterdam coffeehouses. The loud music underscores the stark difference between the curated playlists of restaurants like the Spotted Pig and Momofuku Ko and the shuffle function on a floor manager’s iPod.
But good service and a table full of excellent food can comfort many ills, and Empellón can deliver both. Most meals start with those ethereal pork rinds, or with a bowl of unbedazzled guacamole and chips served with two salsas: a mild smoked cashew one and a more fiery mixture of chiles de árbol. These are worth keeping on the table all night. Some diners may find themselves forking the cashew version toward their mouths in between courses, as in the old days they might have lighted cigarettes.
Inventive ceviches follow, most notably one that combines soft, briny octopus with soft, buttery parsnips and a nutty, sweet and fiery salsa that does much more than allow the two to coexist amicably. (Avoid the sopes, which are mostly and strangely too sweet.)
There are as well some extremely good versions of queso fundido to challenge the one with morels, including one with sugar snap peas and mole poblano and another with both red and green crumbled chorizo, which with the cheese make up the colors of Mexico’s flag.
Salads might in some other restaurant be risible sops to the tastes of the timid. Here they are summer-night treats. One offers green beans with cucumbers and a poached quail egg, dressed in an almond-y vinaigrette of significant power. The other has arugula with orange, mild onion and jicama dice for crunch. After a bowl of cheese and a few tequilas, these count as a kind of molecular gastronomy.
Eleven taco options are available, none of them authentic in the way they might be if you ate them off paper plates at the Red Hook ball fields in Brooklyn for $5, but often just as good and sometimes more so. All come enveloped in those Nixtamal tortillas, nutty and sweet at once.
Lamb barbacoa, soft and grassy, arrives beneath a citrusy, mezcal-tinged salsa; sweetbreads show up with roasted maitake mushrooms and a sauce of ground chiles and sesame seeds. There is garlicky steak. There are crisp portions of duck confit with Swiss chard; lobster with field corn and epazote; funky beer-braised pork tongue with potatoes, cotija cheese and fiery chile sauce. Oh, my. Available in orders of two or three tacos a plate, it is worth ordering a number of them for the table, as the centerpiece of a meal.
Only three proper entrees are available, anyway, and worth considering: a bowl of shrimp with white rice and plantains, doused in a crazily magical smoky crab broth; or fat baby-back pork ribs with a flat nap of reduced red pozole; and an excellent sausage called longaniza, which at the sausage factory sits right between chorizo and linguiça. (Pass on the excellent strip steak not so much because it costs $45 as because there is not much of it above its ample bed of black beans and crisp yucca.)
Dessert? Mr. Stupak has passed his old duties on to his wife, Lauren Resler, who labored on pastries at Babbo. Ms. Resler is no slouch, and her food is so elegant-looking as to almost clash with the room. No matter: her beautifully composed passion-fruit tart with mezcal, mint and toasted meringue hardly lasts long enough to count as aesthetically dissonant. Order two and do not be tempted by her cookie sampler, which will disappoint.
Empellón has improved steadily since its opening, at least on the food front. It might be to Mexican food in Manhattan almost as Harold Dieterle’s Kin Shop is to Thai, though its room is less welcoming by a factor of six. Go there and be horrified by the scene, eat amazing food and go to sleep thinking what Mr. Stupak must, every night when he gets home: Hope this place makes it.
230 West Fourth Street (West 10th Street), Greenwich Village; (212) 367-0999, empellon.com.
ATMOSPHERE It’s a Village tequila bar, except when you’re eating.
SOUND LEVEL Endeavor to be the first customer or the last. In between: Top-40 bedlam.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Guacamole, chicharrón, arugula salad, green bean salad, queso fundidos, tacos, shrimp and rice, baby back ribs, passion-fruit tart.
WINE LIST A brief yet more than perfunctory list that plays second fiddle to the selection of tequilas and mezcals.
PRICE RANGE Appetizers, $8 to $19; tacos and entrees, $18 to $36, plus a $200 16-ounce Kobe beef rib-eye.
HOURS Monday, 5 to 11 p.m.; Tuesday to Friday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Saturday, 6 p.m. to midnight; Sunday, 6 to 11 p.m.
CREDIT CARDS All major cards.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS The restaurant is up a few steps from the street.
WHAT THE STARS MEAN Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction to food, ambience and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu listings and prices are subject to change.