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Allow me to set the scene. We’re eavesdroppers Chez Stupak. Alex worked formerly as pastry chef at Alinea, which was on its way to three Michelin stars, being named the #6 restaurant in the world (and #1 in the U.S.), and best Chicago restaurant ever. It hadn’t quite reached those accolades when Alex was there, but it was on the way.

Then Alex moved to WD~50, with another Michelin star, where he was acclaimed as a pastry genius fully worthy of accompanying chef Wylie Dufresne’s wacky but adorable cuisine with three New York Times stars.

We’re eavesdropping Chez Supak, as I say, and Alex says to his wife, Lauren Resler (herself a pastry chef, albeit not as well known), “Let’s open a taco place.” And you want to blow your cover, jump into the scene, and ask the Stupaks, “Srsly? What the Sam Hill are you doing?”

I do realize that investors might have doubts about savory dishes coming from a former pastry chef, especially after Sam Mason (another former WD~50 pastry chef) flamed out spectacularly at Tailor (a restaurant I liked, but not enough people did). As Stupak told Serious Eats:

“My resume really hurt me here,” he says; “People expected me to open a pastry restaurant, but the problem is, once people pigeonhole you, your creativity is severely restricted. People come for my pastry and expect certain things—like you’d expect pasta on an Italian menu—but with Mexican food, they have no expectations. I’m opening a Mexican restaurant because it’s the food I love to eat, and that’s it.”

But still. Why Mexican, and why tacos?

Fast forward about 18 months, and the idea has reached fruition at Empellón, a smallish West Village place at one of the city’s few intersections of two numbered streets, W. 4th and W. 10th.

The space is non-descript and sparsely decorated. Had Stupak chosen Portuguese cuisine, rather than Mexican, the same décor would have worked. The hard surfaces amplify noise, and the tables are close together.

“You’re not saying anything,” my companion observed.

“I’m just out of patience for shouting,” I replied. That was with the dining room doing brisk business on a Saturday evening, but not full by any means. Reservations have not been tough to come by.

Perhaps Stupak is finding that there aren’t enough folks who’ll pay $17 for three small tacos. The server recited a list of proper entrées: it sounded like there were at least four of them, but they went by too quickly. She implied that they’ll soon be on the printed menu, perhaps pushing the tacos to sharable appetizer status. Looks like a smart move.

The current list of appetizers (there are just a few) isn’t expensive, at $10–11 each, but those seeking a more substantial meal may, for now, be disappointed that the menu ends at tacos.

Meatballs ($10; above left) ride atop a crisp biscuit, with roasted tomato, chorizo, and chipotle. They’re a bit unexciting. Cheddar ($11; above right) comes in a sizzling skillet with bacon and huazontles (a Mexican herb), with warm tortillas on the side. We loved this dish and wished it were larger.

There are eight taco dishes, of which we tried two, both $17: Lamb Barbacoa (above left) and Shrimp (above right). Each was hearty and rich, but the shrimp, the spicier of the two, is the one I would order again.

Service is efficient, knowledgeable, and friendly. And to my delight, the restaurant takes reservations, unusual these days at a place this casual. Had it been strictly for walk-ins, I doubt Empellón would have had my business on a Saturday evening when I was coming from uptown, and wanted to know I had a place to eat.

Although we enjoyed our meal, the food strikes me as a work in progress. Empellón will be a much more compelling restaurant when regular entrées make it onto the menu, as they surely will.

Empellón (230 W. 4th Street at W. 10th Street, West Village)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: *
Overall: *

Reader Comments (4)

A mediocre taco place is a one star establishment? Really? There was a time when your views on this blog were interesting and insightful -- and you actually had some clue what you were eating. Now you seem merely content with writing about mediocre places and getting comped meals from publicists. Not sure what changed, but it is a pity. It is like you are just going through the motions.

May 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary Beth

I don’t think Empellón is mediocre. I think the chef is capable of doing far better. That is a big difference. I suspect that most outlets that give stars will give at least one, as I did.

Meals invited by publicists comprise a tiny percentage of the reviews posted here. I think there have been two since January, as opposed to the vast majority (like 95%) that are on my own initiative and my own dime, as they have always been.

Some of what you call “mediocrity” is dictated by the market. If you can tell me what great new restaurants I am overlooking, I'd like to know. Chefs are opening a lot of timid places right now, and Empellón is a perfect example. I thought my introduction to the above post made clear that I am not “content” with this, but it is what it is.

If I’m no longer interesting or insightful, and no longer “have a clue what I’m eating,” there I can’t help you, but I don’t think I took stupid pills one day. I don’t feel like I have changed, except perhaps that I have been touched by the economy as many people have, and I am consciously avoiding the more expensive places nowadays.

May 10, 2011 | Registered CommenterMarc Shepherd

Just goes to show that no good deed goes unpunished. Since I work in media, I'm not sure why you and so many others blog essentially for no money and a minuscule audience but the least people could do is thank you. My only criticism of this review is that you wrote about a Mexican restaurant without discussing the quality of the margaritas. But then again, I can't really complain since you're just writing for kicks. Thank you.

May 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEater

For what it’s worth, Bloomberg’s Ryan Sutton gave Empellón 1½ stars (http://bloom.bg/iNbsrk), noting quite a bit of unevenness. It puts my 1 star in perspective.

May 18, 2011 | Registered CommenterMarc Shepherd

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