Alex Stupak (Photograph courtesy of Clarkson Potter)
If you think of tacos as cheap, easy street food, the kind of food that doesn’t require much thought, you’ve probably never had a taco made by Alex Stupak and you’ve likely never heard the former pastry chef turned Mexican cooking evangelist talk tacos.
“You have to take them seriously — as seriously as pasta or sushi or any other technical cooking discipline,” says Stupak, who made his name creating modernist desserts at New York’s wd~50 and Chicago’s Alinea, but is now the chef and owner of NYC’s Empellón Cocina, Empellón Taqueria, and Empellón Al Pastor. And taking tacos seriously is exactly what Stupak does in his first cookbook, the recently published Tacos: Recipes and Provocations.
Cheeseburger Tacos (Photograph: Evan Sung)
The Provocations part consists of Stupak’s thoughts on touchy topics like America’s relationship with Mexico and its cooking, and what he calls “the tyranny of cheap eats,” which is an impassioned argument against the common practice of valuing certain cuisines over others. In other words, why are we willing to fork over so much money for dinner at a French restaurant, but insist our Mexican — as well as Middle Eastern or Indian — food be so dirt cheap? Consider the effort — not to mention the quantity and quality of the ingredients — that goes into an Alex Stupak taco, and his position starts to make a lot of sense.
When it comes to actually making tacos, “everything is important,” insists Stupak. “But the tortilla is the most important.” As such, Stupak devotes nearly 30 pages to the how’s and why’s of homemade corn and flour tortillas. And he is adamant that you make your own, writing that “suggesting any kind of store-bought alternative would keep me up at night.”
Stupak dives deep into corn tortillas and what it takes to turn kernels into masa and masa into tortillas. He also delivers the disappointing news that there really is no reliable way to grind masa at home. The solution is to hunt down fresh masa, available at tortilla factories. Masa harina is another possibility. It’s “an imperfect solution,” says Stupak, but can be found at most well-stocked supermarkets and is worlds away from store-bought tortillas.
Another option is flour tortillas, which Stupak whole-heartedly embraces. They’re not just authentic and delicious, writes Stupak. They also hold their texture longer, and can survive reheating, while corn tortillas cannot. You might expect Stupak to be firm about which tortilla goes with each filling, but he’s surprisingly cavalier on the subject, encouraging readers to experiment and discover their own preferences.
Chocolate Tacos (Photograph: Evan Sung)
The rest of the book is devoted to Stupak’s taco recipes, including several of the more popular ones from his NYC restaurants. You’ll find Cheeseburger Tacos, which Stupak says, “might seem like an American insulting Mexican culture,” but were actually discovered in Mexico City. When he put them on the menu at Empellón Cocina, they sold out night after night.
There’s also Deviled Egg Tacos (recipe here) inspired by the Yucatan Peninsula’s fondness for hard-boiled eggs, and Fish Tempura Tacos, based on a concept that may or may not have been born when Japanese fisherman docked near Baja who gave local ingredients the tempura treatment. For sweets lovers, or fans of the Choco Taco, Stupak includes a Chocolate Taco, based on pan con chocolate, a common Spanish snack.
The recipes themselves aren’t particularly long and some are quite simple, but many require making multiple components, including those homemade tortillas. And yet, despite his no-nonsense approach, Stupak isn’t immune to fun. When asked about the long-awaited taco Emoji, he had this to say: “Somehow it will make me slightly more complete as a human being.”
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