Fork Yeah

This Chef Is Upending New York's Taco Tradition

“New York City is a weird place,” says Alex Stupak, head chef and founder of Empellón, a staple Mexican food joint in the West Village. “There really is no such thing as New York cuisine -- we have access to everything.” On Stupak’s menu, tacos are stuffed with falafel; ice cream is topped with sweet corn; and nachos are prepared with grilled steak and hash browns. In short, there’s a little bit of everything. 

Stupak earned his chops as a pastry chef in Wylie Dufresne’s kitchen at the late, great wd~50 -- but he’s earned plenty acclaim of his own at Empellón. The place, which now has two outposts beyond the flagship, is best known for its unorthodox taco menu. “When I think of quintessential New York City foods, I think of pastrami. I think of Katz’s Deli,” Stupak explains. Hence was born the marvelous pastrami taco, topped with mustard seed salsa. After opening the Midtown iteration of Empellón, Stupak found that the area had a penchant for steak houses -- so he threw grilled steak and hash browns on a house-made tortilla. The place even serves a taco packed with ice cream and masa, and a sea urchin-topped nacho plate. 

As of late, however, Stupak’s greatest triumph is the popular avocado parfait. The dessert is a confectionary delicacy -- but when plated, the thing simply resembles half of an avocado. Counter to all of the flaming rainbow cookies and unicorn milkshakes out there, the treat is designed to mimic itself, in its most basic form. To create the illusion, Stupak and his team airbrush a series of silicon molds to resemble avocado skins, before blending avocado and sweetened lime into a mint-green froth, and piping the puree directly into the molds. Once the sculpture-treats have cooled, the front layers are airbrushed once more to complete the full avocado affect, and then served with eucalyptus yogurt and lime snow. 

“There needs to be a surprise -- there needs to be something twisted about it,” Stupak says of his menu. But as it turns out, his tasty, culturally ambiguous fare speaks for itself. 

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Eliza Dumais is a writer with a firm belief in all-things pastrami.