Empellon Cocina, a small-plates spot in Manhattan’s East Village, doesn’t just serve damn good Mexican food, it’s also a vital addition to New York’s Italian-saturated culinary scene. I award the venue three-stars in my Bloomberg column today. There are no tacos, no tortilla chips. Rather, we get pistachio-studded guacamole with masa crisps. It’s an avocado-esque analogue to America’s chunky peanut butter.
Chefs Alex Stupak and Lauren Resler have given us risky fare. Eating Empellon’s carrots with mole poblano evokes the pleasure and excitement of other envelope-pushing regional restaurants, such as Aldea, George Mendes’ haute-ode to Portugal, or La Promenade des Anglais, Alain Allegretti’s paen to Provence.
Of course, we focus on numbers here at The Price Hike, and what’s curious about Cocina is that most dishes are under $20; the most expensive item is a $27 rabbit. Compare that with Empellon Taqueria in the West Village, where entree-sized tacos top out at $39 (for lobster with corn) and $37 (for Iberico with bacon). Menu historians will also recall there were once $200 Kobe steaks and $60 Hawaiian prawns at the original Empellon.
The lesson here is that tacos made with excellent products shouldn’t necessarily be cheaper than composed dishes. Just the same, Empellon is abiding by the Momofuku-maxim that high-end small plates can be served at affordable prices.
Stupak himself rolled the dice with higher price points at Cocina, testing out a $90 nine-course prix-fixe on Valentine’s Day. Here’s how the chef responded when I asked him what kind of plans there still were for a tasting menu: