When New York chef Alex Stupak came to town recently to promote his new book, “Tacos: Recipes and Provocations," Roy Choi threw a book-signing party and dinner at Pot. A pretty good crowd showed up for the prix fixe taco menu. Jordana Rothman, the New York food and drink writer who co-authored the book with Stupak, was there too, running interference with the kitchen and explaining what everyone was eating.
A taco party in a Korean hot pot restaurant? Nothing surprising about that — especially since it's Choi's restaurant. Which all suits Stupak just fine. After all, he's a former high-end, modernist pastry chef turned taco-maker with not one, but three, Mexican restaurants in New York City: Empellón Cocina, Empellón Taqueria and Empellón Al Pastor.
The first taco out of the kitchen was loaded with pastrami with mustard-seed salsa. The second: a fish taco, made with tempura-fried skate wing. Then came a blood sausage taco — and a lot more from the book. These were not your average tacos.
Here are six things we learned from that meal, from talking to Stupak and Rothman, and from their cookbook:
1. Los Angeles is where Stupak first tasted a freshly made tortilla, which he cites as one of his defining moments as a cook. It was at La Parilla in East L.A. "It was elastic and gently blistered. Earthy and supple with the flavor of toasted corn. It tasted ancient. That tortilla got under my skin," he writes in his cookbook.
2. Tortillas absolutely have to be made fresh. "A tortilla is not a background player. It isn't [expletive] Muzak. A fresh tortilla is the kind of thing you notice, and once you taste a good one, you won't be able to tolerate anything else," writes Stupak in the book's essential "Tortillas" chapter. He's convinced "the difference between a great taco and a crappy taco is in the tortilla."
3. To place a freshly made round of masa on the comal, drape it over your palm so that one edge extends past your fingers. Bring the edge of the tortilla to the griddle and very quickly withdraw your hand.
4. Tortillas are a great canvas. You can even flavor them with saffron or make them from alternative grains, such as buckwheat or rye. (And corn tortillas are naturally gluten-free.)
5. Against all odds, a taco filled with bittersweet chocolate chards with pasilla chile, a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of Maldon salt actually works. And it's vastly better than chocolate pizza.
6. The best tortilla warmer, and they tested seven, is a silly-looking thick fabric model decorated with culturally insensitive dancing chile peppers, which Stupak and Rothman found on Amazon.com.
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