The Rundown: Offshoot of the West Village's well-trafficed taco sit-down Empellon Taqueria, this fairly new East Villlage counterpart is just as upscale and inventive, only with an entirely different menu. Oh, and it's really fucking good.
Basic Info So You Don't Have To Scour Blogs In Preparation: Alex Stupak, who made a name for himself as an avant-garde dessert chef at Chicago's mindblowingly creative Alinea and molecular gastronomy powerhouse wd~50, freaked everyone the fuck out when he opened, of all things, a fancy taco restaurant in early 2011. Despite its nontraditional nature, Empellon Taqueria went on to prove itself as one of New York's top Mexican restaurants, which led to the opening of Cocina just one year later. "I think Mexican cooking is awesome. And that is why I opened Empellon," he says on the website, which is as badass as it gets, no?
Fun Fact: As wacky as it all seems, Empellon Cocina happens to be a family affair — the restaurant's pastries come courtesy of his wife, and his brother-in-law runs the bar.
The Menu: Extensive, interesting and unlike anywhere else you'll probably eat in the next few months, but beware: shit ain't cheap. Fish and meat dishes, which range from $19 to $30, are smaller than traditional entrees, so you're going to spend and order a lot here — something I learned the hard way, considering that shrimp appetizer has five of the little buggers and costs nearly $20. But hot damn, everything is fantastic, and it's all plated like lil' edible masterpieces.
Don't Leave Without Eating The:
-Guacamole with Pistachios and Masa Crisps: Though avocado's one of my favorite foods, I tend to think of guacamole as one of those pre-meal niceties that you just eat because its there, and regret wasting room on afterwards. This, though? This was the best I've ever had in New York City. It had so much more depth and flavor than regular guacamole, and the pistachio makes so much sense that you'll wonder why you paid so much for smashed avocado with a sprig of cilantro all these years. I licked the bowl when we ran out of the spiced, crispy accompaniments it was so good. Permanent embarrassment, thank you very much.
-Shrimp with Crispy Masa, Sea Urchin Mousse and Lettuces: The windy cracker was kind of difficult to split between two hungry humans, but the cold shrimp and the spicy mayo-like sauce dotted along the plate and the lettuce and onions — so, so fantastic. Oh, and it tastes nothing like sea urchin, but considering I didn't even realize that was an ingredient until just now, you won't miss it.
-Salsas: There are seven different kinds to choose from, they're $3 a piece and come with bonus crisps. My bottle of Fanta was $4. Do the math. (And the smoked cashew, if you like the taste of smoky gouda.)
-Dessert: The owner was a pastry chef at an inventive restaurant and his wife is in charge of them, for christ's sake. Don't pass on 'em, especially since at $9, it'll be the cheapest course you order all night. We oped for the Hoja Santa Flan with Peanut Mazapan and Chocolate — more savory than sweet, with a sorbet-like whipped cream scoop — but since they're all completely different, pick whichever sounds best to you.
And either the...
-Halibut with Cape Gooseberry, Chipotle and Masa Crackers: You say jump, I say how high, you say Gooseberry, and I nearly cry. If a grape and a cherry tomato had a produce baby, it would be this oozy ball of bright orange joy that I want to eat by the sackful. The buttery fish and masa cracker — this time, twisted into a thin, 3D rope-like design that looks like an edible version of Keith Haring's silly shapes — are so delightful, they make the actually decent salsa underneath seem like a plain pile of tomato mush.
-Rabbit with Poblano Chili Stuffing and Green Chorizo Gravy: I'll be honest, I lost out on a rock-paper-scissors challenge for the Lamb Barbacoa so this one was already cast in a poor light, but this one was no loser in the least. Good on its own, but great when you dip it in the sauces it's plated with, Empellon Cocina's food, especially this dish, require a bit of slurring everything together at once. After the dip n' pull, everything was so balanced between flavors and spices and tastes that I was even grabbing leaves of spinach before someone else would eat them. Oh, and be sure to go for the tiny leg pointing straight up in the air before anyone else at your table does — best few bites on the plate.
The Internet Also Recommends : Roasted Carrot Salad with Mole Poblano, Chicharrones with Refried Black Beans, 1 Pound Lobster with Melted Tetilla Cheese and Tortillas and a Gordita that no longer appears to be on the menu.
Booze: So many tequilas, so many mezcals, and so many ways to drink them. But, if you're tight on money, nix your second round and spend your extra buckaroos on the food.
Reservation Nation: Easy breezy. On a Friday night, we were able to snag an 8pm table for two a few hours before dinnertime online — and the restaurant was still packed to the walls.
Seating Arrangements: For the bar, a handful of tall tables near the restaurant's open front that are practically outside (keep that in mind, weather-wise) and a rather large, round bar; For the restaurant, benched banquette seating against two walls that feels a few inches too close together, with tables in the middle of the room as well. There's also this window separating the kitchen from the restaurant covered in Sharpie-scrawled salsa ingredients that feels pretty dorm-roomy, but hey, at least the word "mole" has subliminally planted itself into my brainblob.
Perfect For: A small bite at the tightly squeezed bar tables when you want something bigger than a bar snack but less than an entree, or a dinner for two that'll go off without a hitch. The portions are too limited to be shared equally among four people and I found it to be a little too loud for group chit-chat, but the dark room and splittable dishes make it perfect for impressing the ladies, whether its your first time out or your thousandth.
Parentally Approved? Yes for the service and larger tables for four, no for the loud conversations, high prices for smaller plates, and tequila-centric bar.
Can I Have A Work Dinner Here? With the lively atmosphere and on-the-mark food, definitely, but only if you're already comfortable with your co-workers or have a taste for tequila to counteract any one-on-one-with-the-boss butterflies.
The Verdict: If you've got the money, go here immediately and have yourself a fantastic dinner. But, if you want to give it a whirl without having to cancel your gym membership to pay for it, grab a friend, get a drink at the bar and split the guacamole and whatever other plate sounds best to you. (I'd tell you to just get guac, but one taste and you'll need to try something else here, too.)
Here is their website
Here is their dinner menu
Here is a photo play-by-play of many items on their menu
Here is what The New York Times, Yelp and Time Out New York had to say
Here is where the first photo and the third photo came from.