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.
People often think about the best tacos they’ve ever tasted in terms of where they ate them. Ask around and you’ll likely hear gushing stories set at kiosks carved into brick walls; trucks and carts with mercifully late night hours; and other such no-frills establishments. For many, tacos are just better at street level, even if it’s unclear exactly why that is.
Some of the best tacos al pastor I’ve ever eaten have come sort of setting. El Huequito, which translates as “little hole” (thus conjuring up the phrase hole in the wall) happens to make some of my favorites in Mexico City. Yet what makes them great has little to do with the vibe of the location in which they’re served.
There’s a perception that Mexican cooking is meant to be down and dirty, not refined—a notion I don’t subscribe to. While Empellón al Pastor will be a casual place, I’ve also served tacos with Maine scallops and cauliflower in a caper-raisin emulsion (a nod to Chef Jean Georges Vongerichten) at Empellón Cocina. Intellectual and emotional disagreements about high-end versus low-end, or experimental versus traditional—not to mention all of the regional considerations—are fairly moot points compared to the issue of freshness, which is a question of time. Simply put, the positive qualities of a good tortilla are highly fleeting.
I’m reminded of a Chinese proverb cited by Ming Tsai on his PBS show: “If a grain of rice gets lonely, it will die.” Take a kernel away from a hot bowl of rice and it will quickly dry out, get cold, and harden around the edges. Similarly, freshly made tortillas kept together in a container stay warm and supple longer, but when one is taken away on a plate alone it starts to grow cold almost immediately, its edges curling up. This is the worst thing that can happen to a tortilla. An issue we grapple with at both Empellón Cocina and Taqueria is how best to mitigate that distance between where the taco was incepted (the kitchen) and its intended destination (your mouth). The longer that taco has to travel, the worse off you are as an eater.
Whether by design or by necessity, taquerias in Mexico are set up so that taqueros can’t make all that many tacos at one time. The sheer frequency and velocity of al pastor ordering is what sets the good places apart. Accordingly, and against all New York restaurateur logic, I intentionally opted to limit the seats at Empellón al Pastor in order to serve food faster and make the experience of eating it better.
The longer that taco has to travel, the worse off you are as an eater.
Consider a Japanese restaurant in New York boasting an extensive menu full of teppanyaki, tempura, and ramen, among other techniques of cooking. At a proper sushi bar, however, you don’t get anything other than sushi—no appetizers, no mains, no amuse-bouches. More importantly, there’s no middleman or bottleneck between you and the person preparing your food. It’s not about art; it’s about craft.
Sushi chefs aren’t fixated on developing new rice shapes or different rice types. In this way, rice is very much like a tortilla; there’s no distraction from the technique. What ends up on the rice depends on that method, and there’s not much else besides wasabi, soy sauce, and other subtle flavoring agents; you see the taco parallels in the salsas, adobos, cilantro, and onion that go with al pastor.
If we had it our way, we’d serve nothing else. But, of course, Americans like options, and given where we operate we need to be mindful and respectful of that. Even so, whatever you order at al Pastor will be served to you without proper restaurant decorum getting in the way. And if you still want to eat it on the street, be my guest.