top 100: empellón taqueria

The best part about the Top 100 project? Simple: stuffing myself silly. Yet it’s not  as easy it sounds. With the exception of a few casual establishments my dining experiences to date have been notable for a measured degree of formality. (Perhaps that’s the true price of a $300 dinner for two.) At times you’d almost be excused for thinking the only way to get an exceptional meal in this city was to suffer through a multi-course tasting menu in a suit and tie. Not so at Empellón, thankfully – or Empellón Taqueira as it’s now called. Chef Alex Stupak’s wise and wonderful interpretation of la cocina Mexicana may be civilized down to its crunchy chilaquiles but that shouldn’t stop you from rolling up your sleeves and getting down ‘n’ dirty. Begin with a bowl of guacamole, which is studded with cashews and comes accompanied by two salsas, tangy red arbol for purists and a smoky cashew that seems tailor-made for hedonists. (Put me in the latter camp; I appreciate the red sauce, but I’d happily eat an old shoe if it was dressed with smoky cashew.) If you’re one of those folks who cringe upon hearing people wax poetic over chicharrones, chef Stupak will open your eyes to the beauty that is deep fried pork skin. Served warm with a roasted tomato and caper salsa, there is something deeply satisfying to the crackling sound which rises from the plate, like an overactive bowl of Rice Krispies. The texture is light and crunchy, yet alive with salty, porky good flavor. I challenge you to eat just one. (Unless of course, you’re like one of my dining companions and you’re in town from Rochester – in which case, you’re now wishing you could find a nice quiet Taco Bell and scarf down a gordita or two.) Eyes bigger than my stomach, a trio of appetizers arrive in quick succession: tuna with pickled potatoes and chorizo mayo, which should henceforth be packaged as a summer staple for city picnics, silky rounds of octopus with parsnip and salsa papanteca, a savory mix of pumpkin seeds and chipotle which on first glance looks overpowering but instead brings each flavor together quite marvelously, and a salad of sweet roasted beets with sikil pak, a creamy Mayan pumpkin seed dip that could easily be the new hummus, topped with a scatter of bitter sorrel leaves. In case you’re wondering, everything goes incredibly well with a neat pour of mezcal, too – notably the smoky Fidencio Madrecuixe. I’m physically unable to resist fish tacos whenever I see them on a menu, so forgive me, I didn’t get to sampling either the beer braised tongue or lamb barbacoa tacos – both of which sounded intriguing. But no worries because the tempura battered fish is that perfectly simple yet elusive combination of creamy flesh and crispy shell. Spiked with a dab of lime mayonnaise and the clean crunch of radish and cabbage, I can convincingly predict that I will order these fish tacos every time I visit – with a side of crispy yucca, please, my new favorite form of starch. As I wipe a dollop of smoky cashew off my shirt - excellent as a dipping sauce for the yucca – it occurs to me that therein lies the problem at Empellón: my utter lack of self-control. Every morsel of this meal has been not just good, but great –  in a full-but-can’t-stop-eating, bowl-licking, chip-scraping, my-palate-is-alive kind of way. I’m at capacity and yet I’m trying to convince my companions that we must have the churros rolled in cinnamon sugar with masa-enriched hot chocolate. Dining at Empellón could be a prim and proper experience if you choose to make it that way, but take it from one who’s stuffed and stained and still wants more: it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

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red hooked on food trucks

Contrary to what I had always been led to believe, Brooklyn’s celebrated Red Hook food trucks are not Mexican but a veritable Pan-American exposition of south-of-the-border flavors – with particular attention heaped upon the cuisines of Central America. I trekked out to the soccer fields where the trucks set up shop each weekend – just south of a huge tract of public housing and west of the bend in the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as it meets the Gowanus Canal – in search of the authentic huaraches, sopes, and tamales that occasionally haunt my daydreams only to discover ceviche, a crazy-delicious take on traditional horchata, and something called pupusa. Not that I’m complaining, mind you. At the easternmost stall on Bay Street, the mixto ceviche comes Ecuadoran-style, in a sweet and sour stew brimming with lime, red onion, cilantro and a substantial quantity of shrimp, squid, octopus, and fish that belie the thrifty $9 price tag. Add a few spoonfuls of the fiery green hot sauce and you’ll want to finish by drinking down every lick of the remaining broth. An icy horchata is the perfect complement to all that sweet and sour fire. However, unlike the traditional rice and water variety I’ve encountered, the Honduran version offered here incorporates milk, cinnamon, and peanuts to bring a whole other dimension of savory and salt flavors to the forefront. Round one over, I head to the line forming for pupusa, a traditional grilled corn cake from El Salvador that traces its roots back to the Maya. Resembling a tortilla, it can be stuffed with a variety of meats, cheese, or vegetables. I opted for cheese and loroco – a traditional flower bud heretofore alien to me – and watched as the pupusera shaped the dough and stuffed it to order. Accompanied by pickled coleslaw, tomato salsa, and onions, the loroco had a complex taste similar to the flavor of sea beans. I could have easily gobbled another. One thing was certain: this was no street fair arepa, thank you very much. Sated, stuffed, I nevertheless pined to continue eating my way across the continent. Yet for once I practiced a smidgen of self-control, opting for a fresh mango dusted with lime and chili, those twin ingredients which so often elevate Latin food to a sublime place worthy of the occasional gustatory daydream.

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put it in your mouth and suck it

More crow. Located smack in the center of the Gaslamp, Brian Malarkey’s see and be seen Searsucker is not unlike, um, seersucker: comfortable and worn, with just enough style to make you sit up and take notice. Though the menu does not specifically focus on seafood, the “sea” in Searsucker pays playful homage to the “Top Chef” Finalist’s love of the ocean while at the same time embodying the personality of his cooking – mischievous, fun-loving, authentic. Divided into categories like Bites, Smalls, Greens, Ocean, Ranch and Farm, the food is both serious and fun – not to mention seriously fun. A high-meets-low mix of comfort foods prepared with unexpected ingredients and approachable, unpretentious dishes, all paired with local craft beers and a noteworthy wine list that’s chock-a-block with pleasant surprises. (when was the last time you saw an affordable bottle from Sardinia?) Like a smoked trout salad with grapefruit, radish and avocado; marrow bone with fleur de sel and onion jam; octopus, cress and saffron aioli; and spicy shrimp over bacon grits. I’d have loved to have tried one or two of the appetizing-sounding entrees but all those starters (and sides like fresh shucked corn with chile and roasted Brussels sprouts) got in the way. Yet that’s one of Searsucker’s finest selling points: have it your way. Graze, nibble, drink, feast, whatever – you’re in excellent hands, suckers.

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no mas pulpo, por favor

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