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Empellón Cocina

Blue hawaiiYou wouldn’t think that after twelve Valentine’s Days with the same person you could be surprised (no, I’m not talking about diamond rings embedded in flan) and yet I was after discovering that I'd made reservations for Empellón Cocina on February 13 while the boyfriend had one for the following night. The surprising aspect is that he doesn't really read blogs (so I can really say anything I'd like about him and he'd never know) or food media, so I didn't expect him to be aware of Empellón Cocina's existence or that I wanted to go there (he also had a back-up reservation at Nougatine, which is odd because we just had a Valentine's-Day dinner at Jean Georges a few years ago). We consolidated and kept my Monday night appointment out of fear of being locked into a themed tasting menu on the holiday proper. And besides, Valentine's Day is for Dallas BBQ–there's nothing more romantic than a Blue Hawaii with an extra shot of rum, right?

They do that small plates and snacks (a Masa section in this case) thing where it's hard to determine portion sizes even when using pricing as a gauge because there's variance in each category. We way over-ordered, partially our own gluttonous doing and partially due to the pushing of an extra dish by our server. And then desserts unexpectedly arrived free (not a complaint). Even when full, how do you say no to extras?

Empellon cocina cocktails

I don't see a cocktail menu online, strangely, just the wine and mezcal lists, so I can't recall every detail of the three I tried (yes, three drinks is probably why I can't remember–I often choose an after-dinner cocktail in lieu of a dessert). There was a play on a French 75 (pictured, right) with the dissolving brown sugar cube, as well as twist on a Manhattan. Smokiness was a theme.

Empellon cocina salsas

Smoked cashew and pasilla Oaxaquena salsas with flaky, deliciously oily masa crisps was the right choice of opener. And it was the creamy, nut-based sauce that I could've kept dipping into all night. I may be the only person alive who doesn't care about guacamole, and why diners are so obsessed with its tableside preparation and disproportionate price tag (it's avocados and limes). I realize that's not the drill here, but I still didn't want it.

Empellon cocina mezcal cured ocean trout with cream cheese, roe & sal de gusanos

I'll admit that I chose the mezcal-cured ocean trout with cream cheese, roe, and sal de gusano because of the accompaniments, not the fish. Mexicans (or at least Chilangos) are crazy for  cream cheese in their sushi, so I wanted to see how the dairy would be incorporated here. And I'll always try an item with tangy sal de gusano, the Oaxacan powdered worm condiment. Both were used to quiet effect here; the raw fish was the star.

Empellon cocina queso with tetilla cheese, lobster, tomate frito & kol

Ok, the queso is dead opposite of the above pristine sashimi, and cravable as you'd expect a cast-iron pan of lobster and melted Spanish cheese to be. Tomate frito and kol, a Mayan masa-based sauce, garnish the gooey dip. I'm still confused if the soft tortillas that come with this are corn or flour or a hybrid. Flour would be keeping with the spirit of queso, being Tex-Mex.

Empellon cocina squid with heirloom potatoes, chorizo mayonnaise & black mole

Ribbons of squid were enhanced with a chorizo mayonnaise and one of those zillion-ingredient black moles that I'm happy to leave to chefs, after a few bouts, myself.

Empellon cocina lamb sweetbreads with longaniza, parley root, salsa papanteca

The lamb sweetbreads with loganiza was one of the standouts. Rich and earthy and enhanced by the sweet-spicy salsa papanteca, using piloncillo, pepitas, the meatiness balanced some of the lighter seafood dishes.

Empellon cocina pork ribs with white beans, masa balls & green mole

They also do that thing, which generally, I'm fine with, where dishes arrive willy-nilly as they're cooked. I'd forgotten about the pork ribs with white beans and masa balls in a green mole by the time it arrived last. If anything, the springy dumplings caught my attention more than the lengths of fresh bacon.

Empellon cocina avocado with spicy grains, sunchokes & hazelnut dressing

After already picking out six dishes for two,  we were strongly recommended to try the avocado with spicy grains, sunchokes, and hazelnut dressing too. Ok, fine, we hadn't explored the Vegetables section; avocado was determined to make an appearance no matter what. I don't remember a thing about this; the poor riot of greens' subtlety was completely lost in the shuffle.

Cocina empellon dessert

I'm mildly embarrassed to admit that I don't recall the details of this off-menu dessert beyond the use of green apples, mostly because the strong flavors of the one below eclipsed it and I was hitting palate fatigue.

Empellon cocina sweet plantain shortcakes with cajeta & crema

I was not imagining sweet plantain shortcakes with cajeta and crema to resemble a miniature burger, or to like this as much as I did. The nearly-smoky molasses quality of the sweet plantain filling made me think of Malaysian desserts, rich with palm sugar. I'm guessing that was the result of piloncillo and goat's milk caramel.


Upon exiting, I was face-to-face with another sesame seed bun, much larger in scale.

Empellón Cocina * 105 First Ave., New York, NY

The Toucan and The Lion

Last week I heard a few peeps about The Toucan and the Lion on Twitter and message boards, then I noticed a few blog posts based on an invite from the new East Village restaurant. Scotch eggs? Duck confit mofongo? I could get behind that. So, I went on my own dime…and I think, volition? That's the thing, was it really my own idea or was I influenced in online ways that I like to believe I'm immune to?

Either way, the food and cocktails were overwhelmingly winsome and  that was mostly due to playing to some of my favorites ingredients like goat, fried pickles, taro, and  kaffir lime. For the most part, the flavors were there, though now looking at my photos I can see there is a peculiar swampy palette (not palate, thankfully) at work, lots murky greens and hits of yellow.

Toucan and the lion cocktail

The Lion matches ginger and kaffir lime with rum and a hit of Sriracha that adds a subtle creeping spice. This and a few fried pickles (see below) would be a fun duo to sample at the bar, if I did that sort of spartan thing (I always over order because I want to try too much in one sitting).

Lion and the toucan whiskey sour pickles

I didn't want to order two fried things with kaffir lime aioli so I opted for the whiskey sour pickles instead of the Scotch egg. Tart and crunchy, tempered by the perfumed mayonnaise, the breaded spears were a great snack, but possibly too much for two diners. A little pickle goes a long way (I was imagining less intense coins). My dining companion didn't agree with me and thought the portion was fine, so who knows.

Toucan and the lion duck confit mofongo

Even though there was a lot going on in many of the dishes, the diverse use of tubers caught my attention. I love taro and thought it made a perfect substitute for plantain in an Asian-inflected mofongo topped with a perfect oozy-yolked egg.  I expected the duck confit to anchor the dish, but it was the sweet, garlickly slices of Chinese sausage that pulled everything together. Why not add a mild salsa verde, too? This was very good, and while dense (though lighter than a traditional rendition) I could've easily eaten this, no sharing.

Toucan and the lion goat pot pie

The goat pot pie was sweetish and spice-rich as massaman curries are, and also made use of non-traditional starches: cubes of sweet and purple potatoes to offset the hunks of tender meat. The roti–this is not a pastry-topped dish, despite the name–ended up getting a little stiff, but I appreciated the flaky flatbread's presence.

Lion and the toucan drunken manilla clams

The clams just tasted like clams. Perhaps the flavor was simply more subtle compared to the stronger dishes. I felt it was lacking a distinct element, though, especially since "drunken" was in the description and I take that to mean chile heat . I will say that the bao buns, similar to the roti in usage, was a nice touch.

The Toucan and The Lion * 342 E. Sixth St., New York, NY

Pollo Tropical

It seems like I've driven by Pollo Tropical on Route 1 a million times, though realistically it's more like once every month or so for the past three or four years, or however long it has been open. The temptation of drive-thru yuca fries is always strong, but not enough to stop. My interest in American chain restaurants is more focused on sit-downs than fast food, though as it turns out Pollo Tropical is an intebetweenie fast casual, i.e. order at the counter with food brought to the table and bussed for you.

Pollo tropical yuca frita

The idea was just to grab a snack after Costco to tide myself and a friend until dinner at Bahama Breeze. But the small order of yuca fries, more satisfyingly crispy and starchy than French fries, and fun to eat with the gazillion sauces from the condiment bar (the hot and guava bbq sauces were keepers) ended up being a gateway to larger things.

Pollo tropical tropichop

Next thing I knew I was ordering a small TropiChop, intending to only get roughage and protein, low-carbing to balance the yuca. But somehow I ended up with black beans and brown rice in addition to my shredded lettuce and roast pork. It’s hard to say no when the cashier rattles off your options and you have no idea what you’re doing. I would totally order one of these for lunch if Pollo Tropical existed in lower Manhattan. It’s comparable to Chipotle’s burrito bowl, but cheaper and less caloric.

And for those in the market for a chain restaurant Valentine’s and can’t hack the $10,000 Pizza Hut promotion (with high potential for food-embedded engagement rings) or have already done the White Castle event (where you could propose with a much cheaper Chicken Ring) you can have two TropiChops, two fountain drinks, and two orders of yuca sticks for $9.99. Romantic, no? I got an urge for a Valentine’s at Chili’s after its mention on 30 Rock, but the closest one is in subway-free Glendale and we don’t generally use the car on weeknights.

Want me to quash that loving feeling? Well, I ended up barfing up my Pollo Tropical food in a Trader Joe’s bathroom shortly, afterward. Not because it was foul, certainly, but because I have this inexplicable malady where about 50% of the time that I go to New Jersey (but nowhere else including Quebec City, a ten-hour-drive and not-so-short jaunts to Baltimore and Philadelphia) I get extreme nausea, sweating and dizziness, motion sickness.

Pollo tropical decor

Pollo Tropical's decor incorporates its yellow bird in shades mascot into works of art. Mona Lisa, Van Gogh, Warhol and so on.

Pollo tropical edward hopper

I particularly liked the Hopper. But the wall outside of the Trader Joe’s bathroom (in Westfield, at least) had their logo done in a colorful Warholian multiples too. Is this a thing? I wasn’t feeling up to snapping a photo.

Pollo Tropical * 77 US Rt. 1, Metuchen, NJ

Prime Meats

1/2 It's not really fair to judge things based on outdated notions. My first and last visit to Prime Meats was when the menu and space was a fraction of its current size. It's one of the closest (probably the closest after Frankies) restaurants to my apartment but I avoid venues that tend to have people waiting/loitering outside the door.

Maybe I give off this impression wordlessly too? I always thought I did a good job of masking my internal old and cranky self. At 7:30pm on a Wednesday (playing hooky from Spanish class–I hope no one there reads this) the dining room was less than a quarter full, and we were given a free-standing table for two instead of being fitted into the row of tables along the wall.

Prime meats applejack sazaracAn applejack sazarac, sweetened lightly with maple syrup is a nice way to start. The cocktail, along with the stewy, braised, Germanic-leaning menu, also reinforced the disconnect between the season and the weather. Fortifying food makes sense in late January; less so as temperatures soar above 60 degrees.

Prime meats new brunswick oysters

A half-dozen savory oysters from New Brunswick (I zoned out on the name) seemed better suited for a bare-legged winter evening.

Prime meats vesper brett

Ok, and a meat board, the so-called Vesper Brett. The selection included ham, calves' tongue, bacon, landjager (like a softer, fatter pepperoni), and chicken liver pate with assorted pickles and a milder "health bread" than the darker, denser stuff packaged into tight rectangles at certain grocery stores. Speaking of German-style bread, I'm kind of excited for Landbrot to open.

Prime meats sürkrüt garnie

Somehow the sürkrüt garnie (no Frenchie choucroute here) managed to be light despite containing three meats: a small amount of pork belly, a bratruwurst, and a substantial slices of calves' tongue (yes, again) that I mistook for brisket in its pleasantly fatty, chewy texture.  When I say light, I only mean that in comparison to the version experienced recently at Renger Patzsch in Berlin. Unlike in Germany, though, I felt no strangeness in taking my leftovers home for dinner the following night.

Prime meats herb & gruyere cheese spätzle

Why not a shared side of gruyere-infused spätzle too?

You don't have to order German food (weird that I also ordered the exact same dish in 2009–I really like pork and fermented cabbage). That's just what I happen to like about Prime Meats and I wasn't up for paying nearly double for the goat special ($32 vs $18 sürkrüt garnie) even if it is my favorite underrated meat.  I could see myself going back on a weeknight, though I'll probably continue to stay clear of the  patrons spilling out onto the sidewalk brunch.

Prime Meats * 465 Court St., Brooklyn, NY