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.
On our previous trips throughout Mexico, we were the proverbial kids in a candy store, following the whims of our hunger and devouring everything in sight. Our most recent excursion marked the first time we went with the sole purpose of eating one foodstuff. Consuming some 40 tacos al pastor daily, we embarked on a three-day death march involving dozens of taquerias across Mexico City.
In spite of our decidedly singular mission, variety abounded. At some places, the rotating trompo spit was between 20 and 30 pounds, but other locations boasted ones as big as 250 or 500 pounds. We found tacos al pastor served with pineapple and without. Some taqueros rubbed the pork in a bright orange adobo, while others forwent that gilding. Onions were presented raw at some places, while elsewhere they were salvaged from the lard-laden bottom of the trompo.
Salsas added further multiplicity. There were red ones derived from either guajillo chiles, arbol chiles, or both, and salsa verdes made with either raw or roasted ingredients. At certain taquerias, we encountered special flourishes like smearing refried beans onto the tortilla.
Our trek raised an inconvenient if now familiar truth: trying to replicate a Mexican dish perfectly is 110% futile.
From location to location, the differences compounded—and keep in mind this was just in Mexico City. Surely other variations of regional predilection or individual bias would have awaited in Puebla or Yucatán were we crazy enough to continue this determined gluttony. Even after pushing our bodies to and perhaps past the limit, we’d only scratched the surface. Yet our trek raised an inconvenient if now familiar truth: Trying to replicate a Mexican dish perfectly is 110% futile.
In our meager four-and-a-half years of operation—an admittedly infantile experience in the wider historical context of Mexican cooking—we’ve had to acknowledge and accept that damn near every “traditional” dish is subject to heterogeneity. Had we aimed to discover or define the best taco al pastor, we’d be admitting ignorance and tacitly acknowledging we haven’t looked hard enough. Were we to claim that ours was the best, it would be highly arrogant of us.
Empellón al Pastor is our most limiting restaurant, named in a way that doesn’t give us an out. We’ve tasted our own tacos al pastor over and over and over again, and now we’re hungry for data. We’ll need to see what the people of our own city think of them, and how they compare with their experiences. Maybe our salsas will be too spicy or, rather, not spicy enough. From there, it stops being about the evolution of a restaurant and instead the evolution of its trompo or its salsa roja. By focusing on this one foodstuff, we hope to set ourselves free.