I haven't met Alex Stupak, the chef behind the Empellón restaurants in New York, but I think I'd like him, just from reading "The Tyranny of Cheap Eats", an essay in Tacos. He writes, "In the corporate world, there's a term for the intangible impasse that keeps minorities and women out of upper management positions. They call it a 'glass ceiling'. In the food world, we have similar issues: racial and gender disparity in professional kitchens … a real problem with the way we think about and value 'ethnic' cooking. We don't have a term for this yet - for this habit of paying handsomely for certain cuisines while exiling others to the cheap eats ghetto. I can think of one, though. I'm gonna call it bulls**t.
"When we opened Empellón Taqueria, we were selling trios of tacos for US$16 and taking a beating for that. Tacos, we were told, should cost two bucks and anything else is 'inauthentic'. That rankled. At Empellón, we pay the same rates for the same ingredients as any fine-dining temple. You can buy a scallop in its shell, shuck it, sear it, baste it in butter, and sell it in midtown for US$24. But you put the same product on a tortilla and suddenly the cost does not compute. Charging prices that reflected our sourcing made us a target. No matter what they're stuffed with, our critics seemed to suggest, tacos just aren't worth as much as other foods …
"I can't tell you how many times I've been accused of posturing as the white knight of Mexico. That I'm trying to save a coarse cuisine from itself with my magic Anglo fairy dust. Or that the food I cook is a rip-off because someone's roommate knows of a place in East Harlem that serves the same stuff for a song. There's nothing wrong with cheap tacos, mind you, but it's not what I'm doing. I don't believe in putting a cap on what Mexican food is worth. And frankly, who are we to decide which cuisines are worthy of opulence and which are not?"
I'd be happy to pay a fair price for these tacos, which Stupak insists should be made with fresh tortillas. And he doesn't give just the usual recipes for tortillas made of corn or wheat flour; Stupak infuses his with beetroot or saffron, or uses alternative grains, such as buckwheat or rye.
And the fillings are just as inventive. He gives recipes for fried oyster tacos with salsa ravigote; sea urchin guacamole tacos with sea urchin salsa; lobster tacos with sweet corn esquites; pastrami tacos with mustard seed salsa; raw porcini tacos with savoury arroz con leche; argan oil mole; and bay scallop ceviche tacos with cocoa vinaigrette.
Tacos - Recipes and Provocations by Alex Stupak and Jordana Rothman