Alex Stupak is the James Beard-nominated chef and owner of Empellón Cocina and Empellón Taqueria in New York City. Before opening his own restaurants, he garnered national acclaim for his work as a pastry chef at Alinea and wd~50. In this three-part series, Stupak shares his musings as he prepares for the late-September opening of his latest venture, Empellón al Pastor, which focuses on the shawarma-style pork tacos of Central Mexico.
When it comes to Italian cuisine, you have multiple dining options to choose from. There’s your favorite restaurant for a splurge, be it for a special occasion or not. Then there’s that place you eat at twice a week that offers dried pasta and decent wine. Beyond those spots, you have your always reliable neighborhood pizzeria for a slice, another place specializing in seafood, and other regionally focused restaurants that do some specific dish or style very well. Their respective menus reflect their focuses and passions, and in turn inform your choices of where you’ll eat tonight.
Here’s the dilemma for us: We love everything about Mexican food, perhaps to a fault. From rustic to regional to modern and interpretative versions, we love trying to decipher it as a chefs, as well as devour it as eaters. Singularity is impossible to achieve if you can’t bring yourself to decide. So while some chefs take the attitude of “Fine Dining or Die” and others devote themselves to country cooking or bistro fare, we can’t pick just one aspect or style of Mexican cuisine to cook.
By opening Empellón al Pastor, it forces us to question everything we’re doing at the other two restaurants.
Building a restaurant around tacos al pastor is indicative of this selfishness. Up until now, we didn’t have a restaurant where we could just make the dish in its fundamental form, mainly due to lack of trompo—the rotating vertical spit that roasts the meat and gives it that nice char. At Empellón Taqueria, I would do a restaurant hack of it that maintained those profound flavors. We would take pork shoulder steaks and rub them in adobo, then grill and serve with pineapple. At Empellón Cocina, we would get inventive and manipultate the proportions of the dish, in effect creating a pineapple taco with pork (in this case, lardo) instead of the other way around. Either interpretation appeals to us just as much as the original that inspired them. We would just as soon eat all three.
As a result of this quest to expand options, opening a new restaurant naturally impacts and changes our other restaurants. In a way, it’s like having a new sibling. Once that new child enters the family, the roles of his or her brothers and sisters adapt to accomodate. Empellón al Pastor is just two blocks away from Empellón Cocina, which presently operates as both a neighborhood spot and a destination restaurant. If you’re looking for three tacos and a beer, either place could accomodate. We’ve essentially manufactured our own crisis, playing chess against ourselves.
The prevailing business wisdom dictates that once something’s working, the temptation is to do nothing. By opening Empellón al Pastor, it forces us to question everything we’re doing at the other two restaurants. While we’ve made things that much harder on ourselves, hopefully that leads to solutions that change all our restaurants for the better. In the meantime, it’s just nice to have options.
RELATED: To Expand or Not to Expand?