Yesterday the news broke that Empellon Cocina is currently closed, with a dining room renovation and lengthy tasting menu in the works. Chef/owner/taco whisperer Alex Stupak told Grub Street that his East Village Mexican restaurant will reopen April 28, with a new look, a refreshed menu, and an 18-course tasting that he'll serve to just one table a night. But a few details, like the price of the tasting, and the extent of the renovations, were left unknown. So Eater spoke to Stupak to help fill in some of those gaps.
The exact cost of the tasting menu, which will be somewhere between 18 and 20 courses, hasn't yet been decided, but Stupak says he wants to keep it "as reasonable as possible." It will likely be around $150, though that's by no means set in stone. He says he'll likely serve it to a table of four, though that could go as high as six or as low as two. He's knocked down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room, and the tasting table will essentially be in the kitchen, so space is limited. "I want people to feel comfortable," he says, so if "stuffing six people in there" makes it uncomfortable, he'll cut it down. He also wants to serve ever person himself, which limits how many people he can host.
Why go the tasting route now, especially after once deciding that format wouldn't work at Cocina? "I have chefs in all three restaurants who are doing a great job," Stupak tells Eater, so "I'm building a place for me to stand. I want Cocina to be the place where we can tinker and develop our own version of what modern Mexican cuisine means." Plus, "I have lists and lists of stuff I want to do that would be weird on an a la carte menu. If you're ordering an app or a main, you're committing to a couple things. You're not going to order a blood sausage entree, but you'd eat a couple bites of blood sausage, unless you really hate it."
Even besides getting a new open kitchen, the dining room "should look drastically different." Stupak wants to make it lighter, because the first time around "we screwed up the lighting," and diners can't really see their food. It will also have way fewer seats – down to 45 from 75 (not counting the bar). That's a risk from a money perspective, but Empellon Taqueria has always been the restaurant that consistently packs them in, more so than Cocina – "It's impossible to serve weird Mexican food and kill it," as Stupak puts it. He's suggested as much before, too. Back when he was opening his casual taco bar, Al Pastor, in September, he suggested that it's proximity to Cocina would force Cocina in a new direction. So he's decided to serve fewer people and take more risks there.
The a la carte menu, meanwhile, will keep a lot of the old dishes, but get a handful of new ones. These will include some Tex-Mex-inspired dishes, which will surely please the city's growing ranks of queso fiends. Stupak explains that he used to think Tex-Mex was just "a bastardization of Mexican food with too much cumin in it," but recently learned that a lot of it is influenced by the cuisine of the Canary Islands, which piqued his interest.
Though Cocina reopens on April 28 (give or take a few days, depending on construction), it won't start taking reservations for the tasting menu until May 5, at which point they'll go live on the restaurant's website.
Those are all the concrete plans for now, and it remains to be seen whether Stupak will eventually start serving the tasting menu in the rest of the dining room, or just keep it small. But the chef does reveal a couple more major possibilities for the future: for one, he says he hopes to open an Empellon Taqueria outside of New York City by 2016. And eventually, joining the growing contingent of chefs with fast-casual chains, he hopes to create a "proper fast food version" of his casual taco bar, Al Pastor.