Friday, May 19, 2017

Empellón Cocina closes after service on Saturday

Alex Stupak announced this week that he is closing Empellón Cocina, his five-year-old restaurant at 105 First Ave. between Sixth Street and Seventh Street.

Stupak, a wd-50 alum, explained his decision in a lengthy letter here. It reads in part:

I have made the decision to close Empellón Cocina.

Our last service will be on Saturday the 20th.

This has been been contemplated for a while now, but I did not announce it sooner because this is not an ending or “death” of the concept. When people hear about a closing they often become annoyingly sentimental and try to show up and “pour one out” as they say.

This is not the tale of a greedy landlord or a rent hike amidst new developments like the ones we sadly read about all too often these days. Our lease is in fact up with an option to renew but we would rather close up shop and begin looking for a new location.

Over the past 6 years, the agenda of Empellón has become increasingly transparent to me. We are dedicated to having a collection of 4 restaurants in our home town, each marked with a color, each with unique attributes that are apparent, differentiated and wanted. We are also dedicated to the continued progression and refinement throughout the lifespan of each concept.

Cocina was originally envisioned as a fine dining restaurant in the true sense of that term. Out of ego, the restaurant was executed in a very fast and cavalier way. (It was serving customers when our first restaurant in the West Village was only 11 months old). Taqueria was profitable in week 2 which is unheard of in this business. We took the money and doubled down fast and hard. There wasn't what I would call a solid plan in place retrospectively.

At the time, I was not thinking like a restauranteur. To give an example, we had bought these fancy custom white leather chairs. Once we received them and saw them set up in the actual dining room (which is on 1st avenue across the street from a McDonalds and a Dunkin Donuts) my heart sunk and I realized I was on the verge of a massive mistake. It all felt wildly incorrect.

We pivoted right before we opened and attempted to create a more casual place. (We lost a lot of money on those fancy chairs)

It's been five years of business for us now. The menu has gone through many iterations and so has the dining room. We have had some really awesome friends cook with us and we have certainly felt our fair share of love to date.

Frank Bruni wrote a profile about us and the opening of Cocina in 2012 which set it sailing right from the onset.

A couple years back we renovated with the intent of making the place a bit homier. We also took this opportunity to carve out a little place to launch a new tasting menu. With caution that time around, we wanted to see if anyone was willing to sit down to a long, expensive, tasting menu inspired by my personal impressions of another cuisine. The experiment has given us sufficient data to cue a segue.

Fine dining is still very much in my heart and I still very badly want to build the Empellón version of it one day. Tacos, tasting counters, etc. were never meant to be a departure but more of entry points into our own unique thing. Our newest place is by far the most polished but there is still another rung in the ladder that we must reach in order to span our own full gamut.

Now that we have opened Empellón I feel, with as much objectivity as I can muster, that the current a la carte dining room at 105 1st avenue has become irrelevant.

He reportedly will take the entire staff here to his Midtown location. Empellón al Pastor, his bar meets tortilleria, remains open on Avenue A at St. Mark's Place.

It sounds as if that Empellón Cocina relaxed a bit in recent years. It certainly oozed with arrogance at the outset. A help wanted sign on the front door in January 2012 noted: "This is going to be one of the most highly anticipated openings of 2012 and we have set high standards for ourselves."

Shortly after their opening, I walked by on an off-night and was surprised to see the place empty. Given all the positive notices of the place, I thought I'd try it. Seemed like a good time for it: The tables were mostly empty at this early hour. There were people at the bar. I asked for a table for two. Do I have a reservation? Oh, well no. The hostess consulted her iPad, then a co-worker with an iPad. The two stared at their iPads for an awkwardly long time and swiped and swiped before stating that, sorry, they didn't have room to accommodate my party, but we could sit at the bar.

We sat next to a man from Los Angeles who was talking loudly about the food scene in his hometown as well as Tulum. When the bartender arrived, my dining companion made the mistake of asking about their tacos. The bartender's eyes bulged, and he said "we don't serve tacos," and he walked away.

By this point I thought someone might be filming us as some kind of absurd goof/IFC pilot. Given our taco gaffe, the first bartender never returned to see how we were doing. (Eventually, the place embraced tacos. Hopefully the bartender didn't suffer some kind of seizure before then if other taco rubes made the same mistake.) Another bartender/server took our orders. She was nice.

Anyway, the food was quite good, and the restaurant was nearly half-empty by the time I left. I never returned, in part because there wasn't any part of the evening that was welcoming. Plus, there are a handful of other quick-serve restaurants in the neighborhood that also serve excellent tacos without the pretentiousness.

Image via


Anonymous said...

Living next door we have been disturbed constantly by the loud noise and unruly crowds, especially the intoxicated ones screaming out front for their Ubers.

When Empellon opened. we ventured inside in a neighbourly way, but were rebuffed as arrogantly as you were when the place was almost empty. Obviously this restaurant did not need us, our friends or our money, so we never returned.

A pox upon them and all their restaurants!

Anonymous said...

Wow, some restauranteurs really take their business "too" seriously. I never ate their nor noticed it in a neighborhood packed with restaurants. The fact that a McDonalds (which has been their since the 1980's) and a sliver of a D&D is unlikely to turn customers away, most neighborhoods have a big mix like this with the exception of the W Village. Glad to hear his staff will remain employed and hope he fulfills his grand plan.

Anonymous said...

Midtown is where a place like this belongs.

Anonymous said...

This letter is hysterical. Pure bull. If this restaurant was making money, it would still be in business. Period.

Boodiba said...

That spot was better when it was Counter. The food was decent at Empellon, but I used to laugh at the pretention of serving EVERYTHING on only 1/2 of huge plates.

Anonymous said...

He writes as if he was the second-coming of Leonardo da Vinci.

IzF said...

I ate there and thought it was delicious. The 7 salsas dish is AMAZING. The decor was weird but whatever.

Giovanni said...

This is absolutely hilarious on every level. The problem wasn't the fancy leather chairs, or McDonald's across the street, it was their thin skin and pretentious attitude. They thought they would turn this stretch into Rodeo Drive, but instead discovered that they had ended up on Bro-deo Drive. Here's some free market research: People here want loud places with drinks and tacos, not foo-foo attitude. The location was right around the corner from the remnants of Indian Row, which has been in a state of constant decline for a decade. They can keep saying that it's isn't a "death of the concept" if that makes them feel any better, and we can say "Don't the the East Village's door hit you in your perfumed ass" as they exit through the gift shop.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

What a story! Nothing turns me off more than BS about reservations when there are clearly empty tables.

Anonymous said...

@Giovanni: "Bro-deo Drive" - that is brilliant!

Anonymous said...

Today's genius comment goes to Giovanni, "Bro-deo Drive" !!!!

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

What a weird explanation. It sounds like he is struggling to convince us. I am calling BS.

On another note, I did train for free there as a waiter position two years ago. It wasn't that busy. And it carried a holier than thou attitude amongst the BOH and FOH. The food did look delicious though. The environment seemed fresh and clean. Needless to say, I wasn't chosen after others auditioned for the highly coveted role as server. Most of the staff were overqualified with multiple degrees and pleaded for extra shifts. This place, like so many others, just don't stay around. Sad, but many places in the city lose their luster and get left in the dust. After Sunshine, and now this, I feel like NYC, especially the EV is changing. And its not for the better. WTF is happening to our beloved hood?

Anonymous said...

@7:34PM - The yuppie takeover which is really about corporations and money. It took awhile from their first unsuccessful attempts but they quietly kept at it long-term and it's pretty much done now. This neighborhood which used to be full of such great people and such characters is about tourists, entitled college students who all bring their cars and luxury condo people now.

sophocles said...

I appreciate Stupak sharing his thinking. True, some of it sounds like pompous drivel, but I respect that he has a dream and the apparent ambition to match. But why does he need four restaurants in New York ("each marked with a color, each with unique attributes that are apparent, differentiated and wanted")? In the end, it's all about the food. If the food is great, the people will come.

Anonymous said...

Really this is the kind of things you say to close friends (some of which may eye roll when you are distracted) not to the general public in a press release type of statement. It has lame excuses all over so sure most of us are cynical.