Alex Stupak thinks his New York City restaurant empire Empellon is misunderstood. Yes, he made his solo career with Mexican food, but the chef suspects most people see Empellon as a one-note, “chips, guacamole, margarita, and taco brand,” he says. But Stupak, who used to work at experimental fine dining restaurants like Alinea and Wd~50, views Empellon as much more — a modern American restaurant group, with influences from all over the world.
It’s a topic he’s been wrestling with as he prepares to open his fourth NYC restaurant on Friday, January 18: a second, slightly different iteration of his East Village bar Empellon Al Pastor, this time inside the Pod Hotel in Midtown East at 145 East 39th St., between Lexington and Third avenues.
Many characterize Al Pastor as a Mexican taqueria, but Stupak is firm in that it’s not confined to that. Though it has six tacos on the menu, mostly transplanted from the original location, the new outpost is bigger and has an expanded food offering to match, part of his long-term ambitions to expand his company’s brand. Empellon could one day be home to an izakaya, Persian-inspired restaurant, bakery, and even a health-focused cafe, he says.
“I don’t want to die a taco chef, I want to die a creative chef in terms of how I’m perceived,” Stupak says. “We have ideas, and where do they go, and when do they cease to make sense within the pigeonholes you’ve created? So you have to create a new thing.”
It’s true that the menu at Al Pastor pulls from all around the world. There are chicken nuggets with Sichuan sauce, lobster rangoon, and, of course, al pastor tacos. But the impending Midtown East location furthers that narrative with new dishes such as deviled eggs with red onions and habanero salsa; a sweet potato taco; lamb and bulgur kibbeh with pine nut salsa; or a gem lettuce salad with cucumbers, chickpeas, and za’atar.
As dessert has become a signature of Stupak’s, he’s added it here with corn masa ice cream bars and, as a callback to al pastor, a pineapple platter where diners grill cubed pieces of the fruit at the table. They can then dip the fruit in sauces such as black licorice caramel, bacon brown sugar, and coconut rum pandan. Drinks include many margaritas, as well as a new tiki section. The menu is in full below.
“One of the things I hope happens with Empellon over time is that it’s perceived as a creative brand,” he says. “But it has to be by virtue of opening new stuff and doing new things.”
This opening is one step in that goal, though the space also comes with some baggage. As the previous site of Salvation Taco owned by former partners chef April Bloomfield and disgraced restaurateur Ken Friedman, it has a history in the neighborhood as a taco party spot. Stupak isn’t opposed to that connotation, though he hopes to further push the envelope on food quality.
The reopening also comes with a new design, one that’s darker and leans into a pub vibe. Brown leather couches, dark wood tables, plants, tan banquettes, and colorful murals abound.
Looking forward, Stupak wants to highlight his various employees and their talents to further his restaurant group. Empellon Midtown chef Duncan Grant, pastry chef Justin Binnie, and cocktail director Noah Small are just some of his employees he’d like to spotlight — and he doesn’t want them to feel like they’re restricted to Mexican food, either.
“Our team is bigger, and we have unique, diverse talent, and I want them to be able to use all their talents to the fullest,” he says. “I want it to be free.”
Empellon Al Pastor opens on Friday, January 18 and will be open daily for lunch from noon to 4 p.m. and dinner from 4:30 p.m. to midnight. Brunch will be weekdays from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and weekends from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.