Empellón Cocina: Mexican, Bold and Nuanced

At Empellón Cocina, the upmarket follow-up to Empellón Taqueria, there are no tacos to be found, but kathryn didn't miss them. She was sold from the start, on a first course of mezcal-cured ocean trout with roe, cream cheese, and sal de gusanos—salt flavored with chile and toasted worms of the kind that end up pickled in bottles of mezcal. It was refreshing and surprising, "like the unholy Mexican child of Russ & Daughters and Momofuku Ssäm Bar, which does similar creative raw fish dishes."

Another big hit was melted tetilla cheese with lobster, dots of jammy fried tomato, and kol, a masa-thickened Yucatecan-style white sauce, all served with fresh hot tortillas. "Gooey and delicious. The lobster was expertly cooked and melded well with the cheese and spots of tomato," kathryn says. "I used my knife to scrape every last caramelized bit of cheese from the cast-iron pan." An excellent gordita comes piping hot, filled with delicious chorizo, sweet potato, and egg yolk; cut it open and the egg will ooze out and enrich everything else on the plate. Even the gordita shell is made with care: slightly chewy and bursting with corn flavor.

Fried lamb sweetbreads—with longaniza, parsley root, pumpkin-seed salsa, and a scattering of cilantro and crisp radish slices—are good and good-looking, too. The tender, creamy sweetbreads contrast nicely with the earthy sausage. And this dish is gorgeous, set in a wide-rimmed bowl streaked with a savory, slightly spicy sauce. One slight misstep was squid with heirloom potatoes, chorizo mayonnaise, and a mole made of some 30 ingredients, including chilhuacle negro chiles. The squid—sweet, tender, and perfectly cooked—was a fine match for the mole, but kathryn thought it didn't play well with the potatoes and chorizo mayo.

Imbibers will be cheered to know that the well-conceived cocktails lean smoky and spicy to stand up to the bold flavors of the food—an approach that reminds kathryn of Fatty 'Cue's. The fruity, fiery Rooster's Claw adds habanero and mango to tequila. Another tequila concoction, the Sweep the Leg, is made with jackfruit; it's boozy, smoky, and delicious. And yes, Karate Kid fans, that name's an allusion to a dirty takedown move. But kathryn wasn't complaining.

Empellón Cocina [East Village]
105 First Avenue (between E. Sixth and Seventh streets), Manhattan
212-780-0999

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