Empellon: Mostly Missing Lowbrow Mexican
‘Trendy’ Mexican food seems to be a thing in New York these days, as evidenced by former wd-50 pastry chef Alex Stupak’s new Empellon and its predecessors Cascabel Tacqueria, Toloache, Dos Toros, Hecho en Dumbo and so forth. Whether or not this thing, usually a blend of dressed-up Mexican street food, fancy cocktail menus, and a casually elegant vibe, is successful depends on the restaurant, and unfortunately, Empellon struggles where others have triumphed.
On the suddenly red hot corner of West 4th and West 10th in the West Village, Empellon is pretty much like every other hip ‘neighborhoody’ restaurant in the area. It has fresh white walls, unadorned dark wooden tables, a backlit bar stocked with all sorts of fancy alcohols (mostly artisan tequilas here), rounded leather booths for groups, and the requisite gilt-framed mirror, you know, to make the room look bigger or whatever. Sure, it’s comfortable and charming, but this look is starting to get a little bit redundant (see: 10 Downing, Bistro de la Gare, Casa, Recette, Kingswood, and so on and so forth). I ask myself: why should I come here if there are carbon copies with different menus littered throughout the surrounding blocks?
Perhaps my beef with Empellon rests in that not only was the atmosphere ‘same old same old,’ but the food was wildly inconsistent. Some of what the kitchen produced was truly delicious, while other dishes were just plain bad. The guacamole is wonderful – the type of stuff you could eat every night with one of the bar’s stiff tequila or mezcal-based house cocktails. And its made even better by the two ‘salsas’ its served with – a smoked cashew sauce and a smoky arbol chile variety; both are distinctive and addictive. Yet, the tacos were over-priced at $12 each and almost inedible. The lamb barbacoa tacos, by far the most tasty sounding, were pretty awful – underseasoned lamb meat, a tough tortilla, horrible bits of bitter green olives that overpowered every other meek flavor in there. The chicken variety were better, though not by much; like the lamb barbacoa, the chicken was egregiously under-seasoned, and unfortunately, not even the little nuggets of green chorizo could save this dish.
Other non-taco dishes are better – the octopus marisco with parsnip and a lovely dressing of chipotle, sweet spices, and an unrefined sugar called piloncillo is well-cooked and an unusual spin on an octopus starter. The queso fundido options sound ridiculously good. I mean, how could you not salivate over a bowl of melted cheese served with warm tortillas? However, the execution was not as good as it could have been. I was imagining some sort of decadent Mexican fondue, and yet what I was delivered was a disappointingly small bowl of extremely concentrated pseudo-melted cheese that had hardened a bit too much. Its hard not to like melted cheese, and so, of course, I ate every bit of what was served; yet, at the end of the day, I would rather just go get some fondue at The Bourgeois Pig. The best part of the meal was the end of the meal. The bunuelos, a bowl of churros-like fried doughnut holes, are utterly incredible. Served with two sauces, a warm honey and an absurdly-delicious caramel-ish cajeta, these are like Pringles on steroids (once you pop, you just can’t stop). I could eat them every night, if I didn’t mind risking heart failure.
Empellon is fine; it’s not great and its not dreadful. Mostly, it just makes me miss low-brow Mexican fare from such favorites as Benny’s Burritos and Maryann’s Mexican. Why pay $12 for a crappy taco if you can pay half that for a scrumptious burrito or decadent plate of nachos at a less chi-chi spot? or perhaps a better question is, in a neighborhood as jam-packed with quality restaurants as the West Village, why pay exorbitant prices for mediocre food when those same prices will get you something amazing just down the street? That being said, if you’re only looking for some guac and awesome cocktails with your lady friends, Empellon is undoubtedly your spot.
Perfect For: guacamole and margheritas at the bar, ladies night out, west village locals