What does it mean to cook Mexican food in New York City? FOOD & WINE Best New Chef Alex Stupak weaves the spirit of Manhattan into the flavors of Mexico at his Empellón restaurants, Taqueria, Cocina and Al Pastor.
New York is a city that constantly reinvents itself in its own footprint. There are heartbreaking illustrations of this—like the loss of the original Penn Station, a Beaux Art beauty demolished in the 1960s to build the blight that stands there today. But there are also inspiring examples—moments when artifacts of Gotham’s past present themselves, and there’s nothing to do but tip one’s hat to their memory. When chef Alex Stupak began chipping away at the yellow-painted exterior of his East Village Mexican restaurant Empellón Al Pastor, he stumbled across one such relic: layers and layers of decades-old graffiti, a time capsule of the kind of improvisational street art that gave the neighborhood its soul for generations.
It took four men nearly a month to scrape away the paint without damaging the work, and when it was done, Stupak invited two contemporary graffiti artists to leave their own mark on the brick wall. “We didn’t try to preserve the past; we just wanted to reveal it, honor it and add a piece of ourselves to the narrative,” he says. “That’s the nature of the art form and, in some ways, the story of New York.”
Stupak wasn’t raised in New York, but his approach to the graffiti is an allegory for the way he regards the city as muse, reconciling its traditions and renegade spirit with his own modern, impressionistic sensibilities in the kitchen. A native son of New England, Stupak cut his teeth at Ken Oringer’s Clio in Boston, and later as pastry chef at Grant Achatz’s modernist jewel, Alinea in Chicago. But it was when he arrived in New York City that Stupak really began to refine what mattered to him as a cook. In 2006 he took over the pastry kitchen at Wylie Dufresne’s experimental restaurant wd~50 on the Lower East Side. There he learned to distinguish between what he calls “picture and frame”—how much presentation and context can alter the perception of a dish. At wd~50 he took that notion to its most ambitious, molecular extreme. “You can cook something that looks familiar but tastes surprising and exotic, or you can present something that appears unusual but offers a comforting and recognizable flavor,” he says, of dishes like “cherry-covered chocolate,” which inverted the proportions of the dipped-fruit classic, enrobing spheres of chocolate mousse in glossy cherry gelée.
In 2011 he left the Dufresne fold—and the world of pastry—to take a deep dive into the flavors of Mexico, opening the first Empellón restaurant, Taqueria, later that year. It was a dramatic career shift—“fine dining lost a star." Dufresne told the blog Grub Street not long after Stupak’s departure. But the radical philosophy that served Stupak well at wd~50 stuck around. “When I opened Empellón Taqueria I wanted to challenge ingrained expectations around the way Mexican food needs to look and taste; the kind of environment it ought to be served in; what it is allowed to cost,” he says. “I was really responding to this feeling I had that New Yorkers have a value system that places the cuisines of Western Europe above those of countries like Mexico. A three-Michelin–starred Mexican restaurant does not exist.” As Stupak grew his family of restaurants—Empellón Cocina and Al Pastor joined Taqueria in subsequent years—he took aim at what he saw as a bias in haute cuisine, reimagining its touchstones to fit his vision. If a long, auteur tasting menu is the mark of a serious restaurant in New York City, then Stupak needed to offer one. But instead of the Raynaud china and Ercuis Brantome silver that might cover the table at Per Se, Stupak commissioned an avant grade sculptor to design service ware at Cocina’s four-seat “kitchen table,” and the menu—21 outré bites that include trout skin flautas and oysters topped with nixtamalized popcorn kernels—is designed to be eaten with your hands. He fell in love with the art and science of tortilla-making, and began to look at the fragrant flatbreads the way all great chefs look at an empty plate, as a canvas for ideas. He mused about whether the ideals of New York’s fine dining heritage could be expressed in a taco, recreating chef Jean Georges Vongerichten’s iconic signature dish—scallops with cauliflower and caper-raisin emulsion—and serving it on a tortilla at Empellón Cocina. In the doing, Stupak honored New York’s long tradition of artistic subversion; of questioning the default culture; of manipulating the picture and dismantling the frame.
The city informs his work in other ways too. If Mexican food as we know it is the result of indigenous fusion—an ecumenical blend of Spanish, Moorish, even Lebanese influences mingled with the country’s pre-Hispanic roots—then what would happen if the cuisine kept adapting to its environment? “Sometimes I want to do the work to master a regional dish; other times I try to imagine what it means to cook Mexican food in New York—to explore the city’s character within the confines of the Mexican pantry,” says Stupak. “If a Mexican community settled the East Village around the turn of the last century, they would have tried to cook their own food with the ingredients available to them. At the time, there was a huge Jewish and Eastern European immigrant population down here. What would that have looked like?” And so there are classic pork carnitas at Taqueria and Cocina—shredded, slow-cooked meat crisped up in its own delicious, wobbly fat. But there’s also beef pastrami that splits the difference between Mexican carnitas and the flavors of the area’s historic delicatessens. He took on the iconic bagel with lox too, arranging smoked salmon on a tortilla with cream cheese and salmon roe salsa. And while the greenmarkets of New York City have little in common with seasonal rhythms across the border, he finds inspiration there too. You might not find fava beans on any menu in Oaxaca, but you’ll find them at Empellón in the spring. Treated like any other bean in the Mexican culinary vernacular, it’s an example of how a flavor can be of two places at once, expressing the cultural soul of Mexico using the terroir of the American Northeast.
The writer Thomas Wolfe once said of New York that one belongs to it instantly. That “one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” Like so many New Yorkers, Stupak wasn’t born in the city, but arrived there later in life, presenting a piece of himself as an offering. Today, at his Empellón restaurants, the chef showcases what the city has given him in return: An opportunity to champion a cuisine that has long been misunderstood in the United States; an occasion to make a point with his food; and a chance to leave his own trace behind on that proverbial brick wall in the East Village, as so many artists have done before him.