Spinning skewers of caramelized hunks of meat make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Mexico City taqueros must have felt the same way back in the 1930s, when they spied their Lebanese neighbors with their tall vertical spits of glistening lamb shawarma for tacos árabes, a pita-like tortilla piled with slivers of said meat. The next generation of taqueros took note—and tacos al pastor were born.
"Lamb became pork, then it was adorned with salsa and stacked up on a tortilla like everything that's great," Alex Stupak, the chef of the Empellón empire, rattles off.
This Mediterranean-Mexican mash-up has been Stupak's latest obsession and, after eating tons of terrific and terrible tacos al pastor down south, he's bringing a little bit of Mexico City to Alphabet City with Empellón Al Pastor.
On the corner of St. Mark's and Avenue A, he's washed the walls with graffiti from local artists, installed two trompos—the Mexican-style spit roast—and outfitted the sliver of a kitchen with a corn tortilla maker.
Waltz past the bouncer and place your order at the back, where you'll likely find Stupak, wearing pristine chef's whites, standing arms crossed and making sure the small but focused menu of tacos ($4 each) comes out rapid-fire.
The namesake taco hits all the right notes of sweet, salty and fatty: Adobo-smeared pork shoulder is tinged with torched fat after hours of slow roasting, then it's topped with a single pineapple frond, diced onions and a few cilantro leaves. Four bucks may seem steep for a taco on a single tortilla, but for homesick Californians, it's well worth it.
We love the steak taco, topped with caramelized onions, too. And the massive hunk of barbacoa ($20) is impressive: Juicy and charred in the right places, it comes on the bone, fragrant and anise-y from avocado leaves. You'll get six tortillas and pan drippings for dunking French dip sandwich style.
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But the other tacos were missing that one-two punch of acid and fat, and lacking texture, too: Mushrooms are floppy, and potatoes with red chorizo mushy and flat.
Al Pastor's got drinks, too. Some are Stupak's creations, such as yuzu and shichimi togarashi-rimmed margarita ($9), others contributions from chef friends, like Wylie Dufresne's delicious corn- and ponzu-packed Micheloté ($9).
But, with strewn paper plates all over the tables, it's obvious that everyone is here for those tacos al pastor. Stupak's secret? Cranking out 1,000 tacos a day.
"There's no secret adobo; it's about the pace," Stupak explains. "If the pork is languishing on the stick all day, they're not going to be good. At the end of the day, to have good al pastor tacos, you have to sell a lot of al pastor tacos."
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