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Gourmet Mexican food? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Yes, we hear some of you out there muttering that under your breath. In the world of luxury and fine dining, Mexican cuisine has traditionally gotten a bad rap: many of us associate it with margaritas, ground beef tacos, guacamole and chips, and a cold Dos Equis. Cheap, simple, filling party food. But recently, the traditions of Mexican cooking are getting a lot more respect. Why? Well, one reason is the masterful work of Chef and restaurateur Alex Stupak, founder of the Empellón restaurant group in Manhattan.

Each of Chef Alex’s three restaurants is a revelation, albeit in very different ways. Empellón Al Pastor in the East Village is a cool-kid hangout specializing in tequila shots, tacos, margaritas, and micheladas (a drink made with beer, lime juice, seasonings, and tomato juice). Empellón Taqueria in the West Village, where we conducted our mescal and tequila tasting a few months ago, is a perfect setting for a date night or friends-night-out: dimly lit, colorful, noisy, happy, and with great food. By contrast, Empellón Midtown embodies true cosmopolitan Manhattan luxury: it’s vibrant, sleek and stylish, and patronized by top financiers and media types (there’s lots of eye candy to accompany the amazing food).

The world of Empellón is definitely not the Mexican food of your childhood: this is Mexican cooking technique elevated to a higher plane. Not surprisingly, it’s been embraced by foodies and food writers – New York Magazine named Empellón Midtown one of the Best New Restaurants of 2017, and this week the restaurant was the only one in New York City to be named as a finalist for the 2018 James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Alex also received a James Beard Award nomination for Best Chef: New York City.

We’ve become enamored of Empellón Midtown as a business lunch spot – we’ve been there several times in recent months with CEOs, fellow board members and friends, and it’s by far the liveliest and most fun of the dozens of fine dining options in midtown.

Empellon Midtown

Because the menu facilitates sharing, and because you’re actually allowed to eat with your hands should you order one of the many tacos on the menu (and you definitely should), the vibe is much more conducive to authentic professional relationship-building than many more formal spots. Just like when you’re working out next to someone, it’s hard to stand on ceremony when you’re testing each of the seven salsas that accompany an appetizer order of corn tortillas (and you can learn a lot about people based on their tolerance for heat).

The menu is filled with inventive combinations and happy surprises. The food is crazy-good, and you have to have dessert (many of the items are award-winning and we strongly urge you to have the Corn Ice Cream Tacos). At lunch, the service is friendly and quick – perfect for the needs of the midtown office crowd. For dinner, it’s a different story, but equally appealing: it’s basically like attending a really chic dinner party in the home of someone with a sharp eye and exquisite taste.

Corn Ice Cream dessert tacos at Empellon Midtown

We were lucky enough to be able to join our Food Editor Nicole Douillet for a talk with the visionary behind the Empellón empire, Chef Alex Stupak. We began by asking him how it all started.

“I got interested in cooking at a young age but I couldn’t explain why. I grew up watching cooking shows on PBS – In Julia’s Kitchen, Great Chefs of San Francisco. An early memory is reading my parent’s cookbooks even though we didn’t have any of the ingredients. At age 8, I made Russian dressing out of ketchup, mayonnaise and relish, dressed a red cabbage salad and gave it to my mom for lunch. I became keen on cooking as a way to make people happy and communicate with them.”

His enterprising and entrepreneurial spirit clearly runs deep: “To save money for a car, my first job was as a dishwasher at a local restaurant [near Leominster, Mass, where he grew up]. I graduated to peeling potatoes, and cracking eggs. All through high school, I worked at restaurants or for caterers – my high school had a vocational program in the culinary arts, so for 4 years I studied, and at that point I knew I would cook and be a chef.” Alex attended the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, and then went on to kitchens in Chicago and Boston, where he built a reputation as an extraordinary pastry chef.

“Pastry is more aggressive and radical than savory side of professional cooking – it requires precision and finesse, and many chefs don’t want to touch it – they say it’s ‘too accurate.’ Technique and complexity are exciting to me.”

One of the dessert creations at Empellon Midtown

After ten years (and tons of accolades), Chef Alex took a decisive turn from pastry to creating a full range of inventive Mexican cuisine for a new restaurant in a new town. We wondered if the chef had any connections or family ties to Mexico, and the response was a quick no. “I don’t have any ties to Mexico, although people always assume that I do – like, they ask ‘is your wife from Mexico?’ I’ve never lived there – although I visit 2-3 times a year – I just felt that Mexico was the rational place to focus.”

As previously noted, Mexican food has traditionally been considered “cheap” by the foodie crowd. Chef Alex set out to change the perception of the cuisine, in the same way that Italian and Nordic cuisines have been previously transformed. “I wanted to set the cuisine free. There should be cheap tacos, and expensive tacos – people assume that just because you put something on a taco, it should automatically be really inexpensive, or even free! That’s just not so.” Not at all coincidentally, he notes that “the name Empellón means to push, to shove someone or something out of the way. That’s what I wanted to do – to push away fear, reservations, and flak about what we were doing.”

He acknowledges that there’s been pushback from people questioning his bona fides and his “right” to adapt traditional Mexican techniques as a gringo. His response? “Our menu is highly informed by tradition and authentic techniques, but it’s not ‘traditional.’ I can cite my sources from Mexico – but as a chef, I take inspiration from all kinds of places. It’s a process of adaptation and association. “

We wondered if it was difficult in the beginning to lure finicky fine-dining types into a restaurant serving Mexican cuisine. “The taco is our Trojan horse. Everybody likes them, and once they’re inside, we can expose them to a wider range of options.” They come 2 per order, perfect for sharing, in witty and delicious varieties, including hash browns, octopus and falafel.

Savory Tacos at Empellon Midtown

So is eating Mexican food going to become a luxury, like the French restaurants of old? It depends on how you define luxury. Chef Alex’s view? “Luxury used to be having a corner office and wearing a suit. Now luxury is ‘I don’t have to go to the office, and I don’t have to wear a suit.” Rather than tight controls and a rigid vision, as a restaurateur his approach to providing a luxurious experience is grounded in flexibility and malleability. “The answer to any question from one of our restaurant guests is ‘yes.’ ‘Can I have three tacos instead of two?’ ‘Yes.’ Whatever people want, we just say yes.”

Chef Alex is keenly aware that the next generation of fine dining patrons is going to be looking for something very different from prior generations: “Millennials want experiences, and they want to document them on them on their phones. Black Mirror is not so far off from real life – for many people, eating at a great restaurant is a performance.” The right photograph becomes vital to a successful meal. Which leads us to ask about the iconic avocado dessert (listed on the menu as Avocado with Lime, Olive Oil and Eucalyptus Yogurt), which has become a much-Instagrammed and highly popular dessert at Empellón Midtown. “I didn’t create it with the purpose of getting it onto social media. But I don’t like making rustic-looking things, and beautiful, simple things are what happen to work best on Instagram.”

Empellon Midtown’s avocado dessert

For all of his deep understanding and savvy about social media, the Chef’s favorite places to eat are all about real-time personal connections: “I like to eat at places where I know the chef. And I love the old iconic New York anomalies – those places that have survived for decades without changing in any way. There’s a great bar in midtown owned by the bartender that’s been there forever. They still use a rotary phone! Just think about the impossibility of that. The soul of it, and the inspiration you can get. I want Empellón to last like that.”

With the vision and drive that the Chef brings to the enterprise, we have no doubt that it will. And in the meantime, we’ll definitely be back for more fish tempura tacos (and we just might ask for three this time).

Pamela Thomas-Graham

Pamela Thomas-Graham is the Founder & CEO of Dandelion Chandelier. She serves on the boards of several tech companies, and was previously a senior executive in finance, media and fashion, and a partner at McKinsey & Co.