If you stumble into a taqueria and want to know if the tacos al pastor on its menu are going to be worthwhile, look first for a slowly turning spit with a beehive-shaped mass of pork fixed to the rod. It looks a lot like shwarma, and that’s no coincidence — the Mexicans picked up this cooking method from Lebanese immigrants. The Latin Americans marinate pork butt and fat with chilies, and they place pineapple and onions atop the hunk of meat during the cooking process, so as to coax depth and sweetness into the piggy crust. After roasting it for hours, a cook will shave bits of the pork into a tortilla, and top it with a little chopped pineapple.
While the cooking method is more or less consistent, the recipes vary a bit by region. And the best versions are transcendent, a blend of savory, spicy and sweet, a harmony of textures provided by crisped meat and juicy fruit.
In Mexico, there are restaurants that serve just tacos al pastor, and those places are what Mexican food disciple and evangelist Alex Stupak is channeling with his newest restaurant, where you’ll indeed spy the telltale spit spinning in the open kitchen in the back of the space. Empellón Al Pastor (132 St. Marks Place) was slated to open tonight, but it debuted over the weekend, popping open its doors after Stupak made a surprise announcement during a New York City Wine and Food Festival seminar on expecting the unexpected.
This place is the chef’s most casual to date: you’ll seat yourself beneath muraled ceilings when you step through the door, and you’ll place your order at the bar. You’ll also need to gather your own plastic-sheathed utensils and cups of salsa from the back of the dining room, in a corner near the kitchen. (And if you are confused about this process the first time, don’t feel badly — everyone is; the place doesn’t quite feel like a counter service joint.)
Paper menus list tacos, guacamole, and sides — all $4 — plus one barbacoa feast, served with six tortillas, for $20.
The drinks list is quite a bit longer, and also more expensive — five margaritas, including the classic, all cost more than $10, as do 10 variations on the Michelada. Better to sip tequila or mezcal neat (there are many selections) or stick with beer — out of the three cocktails we tried, not one was worth shelling out for. But there are 18 brews on draft, including Negra Modelo for $6 (other than that, it’s craft pours). You could also opt for cider; the restaurant has three on tap, including a selection from France and another from Asturias in Spain. And if you’re picky about your Mexican beer, you’ll likely find it in can or bottle — the bar offers Tecate, Pacifico, Victoria, Mexicali, and Dia De Los Muertos.
Food comes quickly once you’ve put it in — faster, even, than your drinks, if you’re having cocktails — and everything is served on paper plates. It’s worth starting with the guacamole, which is tart and chunky, and tastes as though it’s been touched by a bit of pineapple; you get a pile of house fried chips on the side. You should order a couple of the al pastor tacos, for Stupak’s rendition is tasty. Crisped bits of tender pork burst with the chile-laced flavor of the marinade and a subtle tinge of sweet citrus, heightened by a couple of chunks of fresh pineapple. Your taco will come sprinkled with onions and cilantro, and sided by a wedge of lime. It won’t need the salsas you collected earlier, and the menu notes that all tacos are properly dressed. Use the green salsa if you want to add more heat; it’s tart and light and won’t interfere with the flavor. And eat quickly — the tortillas here seem a bit clumsy, and they get hard and chewy once they start to cool.
Need a side? Down in the Other Accoutrements section, the drunken black beans are worthy of your attention, because they’re laced with scraps from the al pastor spit.
Unless you’re a vegetarian, you can ignore the rest of the tacos — one filled with chorizo and potatoes was heavy on potatoes, another filled with steak and carmelized onions simply paled next to the pork. Non-meat eaters, though, can pick from pasilla chile-marinated mushrooms or the vegetable of the day.
Empellón Al Pastor is open nightly for dinner.