Empellon Cocina in the East Village, the experimental jewel of Alex Stupak’s growing Mexican-inspired empire — it hawks dishes like chicken tender tacos and pozole ramen — will close on Saturday, the chef announced on the restaurant’s website.
Cocina ranks with Cosme as one of New York’s two most ambitious Mexican culinary establishments.
“This is not the tale of a greedy landlord or a rent hike amidst new developments like the ones we sadly read about all too often these days,” Stupak wrote in his statement. “Our lease is in fact up with an option to renew but we would rather close up shop and begin looking for a new location.”
But in a city famous for eating up and eventually spitting out modernist spots like Corton, WD~50, Varietal, and Tailor, it’s hard not to think of Cocina, which never felt as full as Stupak’s other restaurants on any given night, as a temporary casualty of sorts.
The East Village hangout, which opened in 2011, was a never-ending culinary experiment. Stupak famously penned a 400-word essay pledging not to serve tacos there. A few months later, he started serving tacos there. Head cheese tacos. Buffalo wing tacos. Cheeseburger tacos. Fried smelt tacos. “It's virtually impossible to mistake them for tacos served at any other restaurant, anywhere in New York,” this critic wrote in 2014.
Stupak overhauled the menu so many times I made it a practice of filing one or two Cocina mini-critiques every year instead of publishing formal re-reviews.
The restaurant levied neighborhood-friendly prices for freewheeling small plates, but it also charged sometimes hundreds of dollars for guest chef tasting menus with the likes of Enrique Olvera, Jordan Kahn, and most famously, Grant Achatz, who served up a reimagined Thanksgiving dinner tasting that included amuses served on actual logs.
Last January, Stupak built a kitchen counter where guests would pay $165 for a whirlwind of 20-plus courses. Among the most notable dishes were pineapple tacos topped with lardo, celery root sashimi seasoned with chile ash mayo, and scoops of orange sorbet in gellan gum tuiles. It wasn’t just the city’s most avant-garde Mexican tasting menu, it was the city’s most expensive Mexican tasting: Dinner for two with pairings would run just shy of $600.
The lilliputian size of the counter (just four seats) signaled that Stupak was hedging his bets on the future of fine dining — while the masses in the main dining room ordered guacamole and uni toast.
Update: Stupak sends word that he’ll relocate the tasting counter to the Midtown location later this year and that he’ll expand its capacity to accommodate eight guests. He also writes that Cocina’s “entire team” will move to join one of the other locations. “There are four tiers to Empellon. I must simply rebuild one better,” Stupak says.
In addition to Empellon in Midtown, Stupak also runs Empellon Al Pastor on St. Marks Place and Empellon Taqueria in the West Village. The chef, in a tweet, hints at new menus at both of those institutions, adding that all of his restaurants “are to be progressive,” a hat tip to the modern, ever-changing style of Cocina.
Here are highlights from Stupak’s letter, as published on the Empellon website:
I have made the decision to close Empellón Cocina.
Our last service will be on Saturday the 20th.
This has been been contemplated for a while now, but I did not announce it sooner because this is not an ending or “death” of the concept. When people hear about a closing they often become annoyingly sentimental and try to show up and “pour one out” as they say.
This is not the tale of a greedy landlord or a rent hike amidst new developments like the ones we sadly read about all too often these days. Our lease is in fact up with an option to renew but we would rather close up shop and begin looking for a new location.
Over the past 6 years, the agenda of Empellón has become increasingly transparent to me. We are dedicated to having a collection of 4 restaurants in our home town, each marked with a color, each with unique attributes that are apparent, differentiated and wanted. We are also dedicated to the continued progression and refinement throughout the lifespan of each concept.
Cocina was originally envisioned as a fine dining restaurant in the true sense of that term. Out of ego, the restaurant was executed in a very fast and cavalier way. (It was serving customers when our first restaurant in the West Village was only 11 months old). Taqueria was profitable in week 2 which is unheard of in this business. We took the money and doubled down fast and hard. There wasn't what I would call a solid plan in place retrospectively.
At the time, I was not thinking like a restauranteur. To give an example, we had bought these fancy custom white leather chairs. Once we received them and saw them set up in the actual dining room (which is on 1st avenue across the street from a McDonalds and a Dunkin Donuts) my heart sunk and I realized I was on the verge of a massive mistake. It all felt wildly incorrect.
We pivoted right before we opened and attempted to create a more casual place. (We lost a lot of money on those fancy chairs)
It's been five years of business for us now. The menu has gone through many iterations and so has the dining room. We have had some really awesome friends cook with us and we have certainly felt our fair share of love to date.
A couple years back we renovated with the intent of making the place a bit homier. We also took this opportunity to carve out a little place to launch a new tasting menu. With caution that time around, we wanted to see if anyone was willing to sit down to a long, expensive, tasting menu inspired by my personal impressions of another cuisine. The experiment has given us sufficient data to cue a segue.
Fine dining is still very much in my heart and I still very badly want to build the Empellón version of it one day. Tacos, tasting counters, etc. were never meant to be a departure but more of entry points into our own unique thing. Our newest place is by far the most polished but there is still another rung in the ladder that we must reach in order to span our own full gamut.
Now that we have opened Empellón I feel, with as much objectivity as I can muster, that the current a la carte dining room at 105 1st avenue has become irrelevant.
It's simply a story about becoming a very critical editor of your own work that I don't want to get misconstrued. It's also about trying to claw your way toward something and not giving up. When I left wd~50, it was during a market crisis. No one with money was investing. Certainly not in fine dining, and especially not in an experimental white pastry chef trying to pivot toward all of this. The taco/casual thing became the logical sell. That was the entry point into all this. It's all a big part of me now. Learn from the past, concern yourself with the present and focus on the future.