"Empellon Cocina Stupak reverse al pastor taco"

Birthday Extravaganza at Empellon Cocina’s Kitchen Table

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It’s funny where life takes you.

8 months ago, I was in Oaxaca, Mexico being served an amazing meal as part of the El Sabor del Sabor festival. I’d chosen this particular event because it was being hosted by the wonderful Chef Rodolfo Castellanos of Origen restaurant. The other reason though, was that Chef Alex Stupak from NYC was also a part of that event as the only international chef at the festival.  I’d seen Chef Stupak’s name all over the NY Eater feed in the past few years, so I was familiar with the name, and once I’d done a bit of research on Chef Stupak (Alinea and WD-50 alum), I knew it would be the event to attend during the festival.

My evening at Origen for Festival Sabor del Sabor featuring Chef Stupak was stupendous. I knew as I ate both of Stupak’s dishes at the event, that I needed to make it a priority to go back to NYC to eat at his restaurant Empellon Cocina. And if you know me, when I make something a priority, it always happens.

Chef Stupak has 3 restaurants in NYC under the Empellon umbrella. Empellon Cocina, his “higher” end, Taqueria in the mid and the newest taco joint Al Pastor, which opened late last year. While I’ve read most about Al Pastor, I was most curious about his creations from Cocina. As luck would have it, Cocina recently revamped the dining experience at Cocina to include a 4 seat Kitchen table dining experience and my timing as I started researching the restaurant was perfect to get a reservation.

Reservations are obtained through Open Table, but it took a bit of finessing with the restaurant to actually confirm a date for dining. I really wanted to dine at Eleven Madison Park on my actual birthday, but Kitchen Table was the more difficult reservation to obtain. When I was able to secure EMP for July 3rd, I locked myself into Empellon Cocina’s Kitchen Table for my birthday.

I wondered in advance if Chef Stupak would be in the kitchen for the meal. I’d hoped he would be, but played my expectation down as I didn’t want to be disappointed. I focused more on who the other 2 diners would be that I’d have to share this experience with. I hoped whoever it was would be “all in” like I was. I could only imagine how horrible an intimate dining experience could be when you have to share it with complainers or people who didn’t want to “get it”. It’s funny how I stress out about the small things, because my life in food, usually turns out to be Forest Gump-ish in that I find myself in extraordinary situations so much of the time.

My evening started with a (too strong) cocktail at Amor y Amargo, a fantastic tiny Bitters Tasting room a few blocks away from the restaurant.

Di Pompelo cocktail with tequila and grapefruit bitters

When I arrived at Empellon Cocina a few minutes before my 7:30 reservation, I was told that the kitchen was not ready for me yet. As I waited outside, I glanced towards the back and saw Chef Stupak setting up in the area where I’d be seated. I immediately settled knowing I was going to have a great meal put in front of me by this talented chef. I continued to wait a few more minutes and saw a man go to the host to check in for the Kitchen Table as well. When he turned around, I immediately recognized him as Francis Lam, judge on Top Chef and columnist with the New York Times. Hmmmm, are you freeking kidding me? I was going to be dining with Francis Lam? My expectations of the evening shot up a bajilllion notches.

Francis’ dining companion was late, and the restaurant wanted to seat us all together, so I settled in at the bar for another cocktail.

Spicy cucumber margarita

It wasn’t 3 minutes after having my margarita put in front of me before the party was completed and we were all led the back where 4 seats were set up facing into the kitchen. I’m not really one to choose the wine pairing at a multi-course meal, but for this meal, the pairing was an interesting mix of wines, beers, cocktails and mezcals, so I was curious and the fact they allowed for the pairing to be shared had me sold. I guess I was all-in for my birthday!

Chef Stupak was quick to introduce himself and then start into the first course. I noticed that Chef Stupak was familiar with both Francis and his dining companion. Through some casual questioning, I learned that Francis’ dining companion was Helen Rosner, contributing editor to my favourite website Eater NY. I knew then, that this meal would certainly be an all out extravaganza.

Stupak carefully went through all the ingredients of the ceviche before depressing the plunger on the French press.
Leche de Tigre – Tigers milk was a serving of the liquids pressed from the ceviche. My eyes opened wide to the intense flavours which were  also refreshing. The same smile broke out on each of the diner’s faces as we knew we were about to be taken on a magical journey.
Peach with apricot seed salsa macha
Clamato – frozen clam juice surrounded by a bright tomato-ey ring.

As all 4 diners savoured the Clamato popscicle, Francis Lam started pumping his fists in the air in delight. I realized that this meal would allow for exuberant displays of affection for the food, which was fine by me.  Stupak though, remained focused as he forged forward serving the meal.

I learned at this point that Francis Lam was the editor of Chef Stupak’s soon to be released cookbook, and although he was familiar with the chef’s food, neither he nor Helen had partaken in this Kitchen Table experience. It felt good knowing their journey through this extravaganza would also be mine. There’s something to be said about food tasting better when you’re sharing it with people who want to enjoy their experience as much as you do.

Grilled zucchini with burnt chile paste, chimole (Yucatan based black mole) and coconut crema was a pretty plate that turned very interesting as you swirled the zucchini pieces around the different elements on the plate.
Gordita inflada with salsa verde mousse was crisp bite into a light and bright creamy filling.
Egg white omelette with sikil pak (Yucatan pumpkin spread) wrapped in a hoja santa leaf

Kumamoto oyster with (nixtamalized) popcorn pozole – 2 of my favourite things served together; the oyster was a “Woo Hoo” moment for me. I loved the contrast of the sweet corn with the briny silky oyster.
Avocado with bread crumbs and crab
Trout flauta – The trout skin is dehydrated and then fried to act as the tortilla around the trout and then topped with roe and salsa.

I was in awe at this point and couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. There were so many “oooohs and aaaaahs” and genuine appreciation for the food that we tried to get Chef to relax a bit in the service. It may have been my imagination, but perhaps Chef dialed it back a notch, but he definitely stayed in the driver’s seat.

Pickled artichoke with guacamole and salsa de chapulines
Concha with American cheese and chipotle date puree – Such a simple bite delivered so much joy. The concha (bread) was better than any I’d tasted in Mexico , but Chef Stupak claimed that “Mexico has bad flour”. Helen Rosner’s comment “American cheese is the mayonnaise of cheeses” was perfect.
Scotch (quail’s) egg made with chorizo

Then came the interactive salsa where we were able to choose which ingredients would be added to the salsa that would be prepared for the table.

Francis Lam picked the roasted tomatoes from the platter containing roasted, raw, green.
Choosing chiles
Helen chose pickled jalepeno and pasilla Oaxaqueno from her tray of chiles.
Chef then took all the chosen ingredients and put into his giant molcajete he brought back from one of his trips to Mexico.
Salsa with raw and roasted onion and garlic, raw serrano, pickled jalepeno, pasilla oaxaquena and roasted tomato
Quesadilla with chicharrons and quelites
Blood sope topped with avocado and cotija cheese
Rather than topping pork shoulder with pineapple on the vertical rotisserie, the inverse Al Pastor has pineapple topped with a slab of pork fat.
Inverse Al Pastor was savoury sweet and something I could have had 4 of if it weren’t for the fact I was full by this point.

Heading into the final stretch of the meal, all of the diners of the meal seemed relaxed in the knowledge of being part of a wonderful meal. I love feeling this way, like the food was so good, the desserts to follow are superfluous. But the thing about Chef Stupak is that he is comfortable  and confident in the world of sweets and nothing about the sweet portion of the meal was an afterthought.

Masa waffle with chicken liver butter
Ripe plantain with mole poblano
Black mole (sorbet) with white sesame
Tres leches cake with blackberries and watermelon was a pretty white on white plate that delivered sinfully decadent flavours.
Cajeta with strawberries, buckwheat flavoured goats milk and crushed ice
Orange with sal de gusanos – I am not normally don’t find much value when gusanos (worms) are added to anything, ie salsa, Mezcal, but here it just worked. Don’t ask me why. But then again, I could have just been joyful that the dinner was over.

The recurring thought I had throughout all the sweet courses was, “mmmmm this is so good, I just wish I weren’t so full”, but at the same time full wasn’t going to stop me from the full experience of tasting. I loved being constantly surprised with flavours, textures and temperatures.

Right before the last course was hitting the table, Chef Stupak recounted a story of 4 guys who crushed 24 courses and then finished with a cheeseburger taco, both Francis and Helen took it as a challenge. My gut was bursting at this point, but I knew there’d be serious FOMO if they were served this taco and I was not.

Only available at the bar at Empellon Cocina, Stupak hopes this is “America’s next big thing”. The photo is horrible because at this point all I could focus on was just one more bite. The taco was really good though, and I had just 2 more bites, then I was DONE!
Thank you Chef Stupak for the most amazing birthday meal. I’m so happy Oaxaca led me back to NYC!
And a thank you to Francis Lam (and Helen Rosner) for allowing me to food geek out next to you during the meal.

Best birthday ever…

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