Alex Stupak admits he’s no longer an underdog. With the opening of Empellon Midtown slated for March 20, he’s building a burgeoning taco empire.
In this 8,000 square-foot, 150-seat, bi-level space at 510 Madison Ave., he has surpassed the number of staff at all of his downtown restaurants combined, hiring a fleet for the front of the house, the bar, and the kitchen — including executive chef Colin King, from Jose Andres’ Oyamel in DC, and Duncan Grant from Gramercy Tavern.
His three restaurants — Empellon Taqueria in the West Village, Empellon Cocina in the East Village, and the laid-back Empellon al Pastor— have helped Stupak earn the reputation to build a flagship in Midtown. The space includes a kitchen and tortilleria on the basement level, an open kitchen on the ground floor, and the dining room that shows off bold murals in primary colors and contrasting textures — with art from sculptor Biata Roytburd, wood-carver Dennis McNett, and Sylvia Ji, the favorite painter of his wife and partner Lauren Resler. (In addition to opening this restaurant, the couple is about to have a second child.)
Open for lunch and dinner, Empellon Midtown will debut in a space designed by Glen & Co. Architecture that’s been earmarked for a restaurant since the skyscraper took shape in the 2000s. It sat empty until now.
- Though the building was built in the 2000s, Empellon is the first restaurant to occupy this space.
- Two restaurateurs tried to open here but backed out.
- “This was a difficult build-out, especially the stairs,” says Stupak.
- The upstairs is more of a mezzanine than a second level.
- “I wanted this area to feel more residential than the downstairs,” says Stupak.
- The walls open and close to create a private dining room.
- Sculptures are from Biata Roytburd
On the menu, diners will find a few crossover dishes — like guacamole and the seven salsas — but overall, most of them are new, with tacos priced from $14 to $22, and the highest-priced entree peaking at $125. In keeping with Stupak’s having a story for every dish, he points to the cabbage salad on the menu.
“We love that crunchy fava beans snack that we discovered on the street in Oaxaca, dressed with salt and chili powder,” he says. That snack is translated into the dressing, which starts with cooking liquid from soaked favas — with beans, garlic, and olive oil added. Then he adds crushed beans as a powder and uses it as part of the dressing to coat the leaves with texture.
“It’s a simple salad, but we have reference points,” he says. “If you can’t write several paragraphs in a cookbook for every dish, then why are you making it?”
Read on for dishes from Empellon:
Falafel taco with grasshopper hummus: Northern African and Middle Eastern cuisine has been creeping into dishes — an extension of the kitchen exploring the Middle Eastern influence that comes from Lebanese migration to Mexico. “So we’ve got red salsa and white salsa meant to mimic the kind of things happening with a halal cart,” he says, hummus that’s seasoned with lime, sesame, cumin, Mexican oregano — and grasshoppers ground right into it. “There’s more protein in this hummus than there is in an eight-ounce steak,” he says. It’s a variation of a dish he’s serving downtown.
Lettuces with salsa verde mousseline: “We take salsa verde and we emulsify butter into it, chill it, then whip it, and it whips up like the most beautiful mousse,” he says. “We have more rigid lettuces that you can dip and softer-style lettuces to make little tacos.” The lettuces are sprayed in mineral water laced with lime and sea salt.
The seven salsas: “People order guacamole without looking at it. I think of it as a gateway.” Add seven salsas to an order of guacamole — “six you can find examples in Mexico, one that’s original to me.” From mild to hot, there’s his smoked cashew, salsa roja, salsa verde, salsa borracha, tomatillo chipotle, salsa arbol, and salsa habanero. “That last one is floral and beguiling,” he says. ”Then it just blows your head off.”
Wagyu fajitas: “Fajitas in Mexico mean skirt steak. What does it mean to an American? It means anything that comes out sizzling with a ton of peppers and onions on it,” says Stupak. “So this is fajitas like an American imagines it. But what it is is A5 wagyu New York strip,” served with a mole with peppercorns that take the place of chilies, with notes of bananas, plantain, onion, “and that becomes our example of steak sauce.” Here, the steak is certified: “We get the credentials from K & K in LA,” he says, showing the papers. It’s 8 ounces for $125.
Citrus for the table: Dessert is important for this former WD-50 pastry chef. “Here’s the inverse of the shellfish tower and served at the end of the meal.” Citrus for two ($7 per person) starts with unadorned mandarin kumquats, “They have a very short season,” he says. They nestle in ice next to straight-up pastry, like lemon sorbet inside Meyer lemon cups. The pillowy item is grapefruit gelatin with mezcal, “like a jello shot encapsulated in marshmallow,” dusted with hibiscus; followed by a dollop of lime curd on Kaffir lime leaf and last, Cara Cara sangrita, with chili, lime, and pomegranate. It’s a series of refreshing bites at the end of a meal, from pastry chef, Justin Binnie.
Chances are, you will order mezcal or tequila from the bar cart wheeled by beverage director Noah Small — for the charm in the presentation or curiosity about these particular hard-to-find spirits. Small is also the creator of cocktails like Babylon Sisters, named for the Steely Dan song, with Uncle Val's Peppered Gin, Cazzotes Eau De Vie, and Gordal olives.
Though the new Empellon is a big space that houses grand ambitions, that’s not entirely how Stupak sees it. “In a lot of ways, this is intended to be a neighborhood restaurant,” he says. “We’re hedging our bets that people haven’t been treating Midtown like a neighborhood.”