With tasty tacos and a self-service sauce bar offering a selection ranging from mildly spicy to full-on mouth burn, there is something for every taste at Empellón. The specialty slow roasted pork tacos are as delicious as the enormous skewer grill is enticing, and the space of the restaurant is full of interesting details. Make sure to look up, as the ceilings of this place are impressive. Covered in graffiti-like paintings, the intricate decorations add a special touch to the atmosphere. Another fun feature is the chalk left out in the bathroom, urging guests to leave their mark on the blackboard painted walls. In 2016, Alex had the brilliant idea to separate the bar and the taqueria with a wall so that light from the taqueria does not spill into the low-lit bar area. The two sections, which have different hours, also have new menu items, including nachos and wings. Some of the tacos have also been beefed up, sometimes literally, including short rib and cheeseburger tacos. There is no doubt that with a happening bar scene and tacos served on small paper plates, owner Alex Stupak has another Manhattan hit to add to his other endeavors.
Replacing the recently relocated Mace, and owned by the same company, the Cabinet - opened in May 2019 - serves a carefully prepared array of mezcals, tequilas, and ryes in a cozy and unique location in Alphabet City. The Manhattan Sideways team was immediately astonished by the attention to detail displayed by head bartender Christine Helmer in creating the atmosphere, as she busily prepared candles before presenting us with cocktails and telling us about the business. It did not take me long to realize that this attention to detail extends to almost every aspect of the bar, from its well-crafted, variously flavored cocktails to its idiosyncratically romantic, home-like interior energies curated by a decor reminiscent of a hybrid Victorian and US Western cultural era. Originally from Germany, Christine easily contextualized her bar’s specialty, mezcals, as often misperceived as too “smoky” or “aggressive” by less open-minded New York bargoers. She resists this misclassification. She notes that mezcal’s flavor potentials are almost endless and are underappreciated by many United States bars, and her cocktails proved her point; after trying the sweet, foamy, lime and watermelon flavored Primer Beso, I realized that mezcal was not relegated to the smoky aftertastes I remembered from the first time I drank it. It was true: “the more you learn about it the more you realize you didn’t know anything, ” as Christine reflectively mentioned. While the Romero and the Caminante were more harsh, they were not devoid of their own individually intricate flavors that I suspect become more complex as one’s mezcal palette develops. The Caminante was served in an Oaxacan gourd, which Christine noted was the traditional vessel for mezcal consumption among Oaxacan indigenous farmers. These liquors are a passion for Christine, who enthusiastically added that the Cabinet offers free educational seminars for its customers who want to learn more about the world of mezcal. Although she recognized that mezcal was indeed “in, ” she emphasized that the public’s affinity to liquor fluctuates dynamically with time, and that she has seen certain liquors rise and fall quickly in popularity during her career. Her knowledge of the industry was fascinating, as she described her ascendance to the Cabinet as built upon a combination of reading quality cocktail books and talking to bartenders and mentors. If anything was clear from the interview, it was that mezcal was much more than a job for Christine. She traveled down to Oaxaca, Mexico earlier in 2019, dancing in agave fields as she directly worked with mezcal farmers. She identified a number of differences between the production of mezcal in these regions of Mexico and the production of other types of liquor by large corporations in the US. Mezcal’s versatility and diversity is a product of its resistance to corporatization in the US, and it is subsequently relatively unpopular in US markets (in contrast to the “industrial” tequila); it is not only sustainably and locally developed, but is also often reflective of the other types of crops grown in the region and their flavors. The bar put its money where its mouth was: all of its liquors come from small producers, many with eye-popping approaches to graphic design that added to the stimulating decor behind the bar. The variety of these liquors “grouped by species” was notable, and they sure make you feel alive. For Christine, a constant struggle is making sure that the world of cocktails is something accessible, simple, and easily understood, rather than pretentious, arcane, and elitist, something she carries with her from her trip to Oaxaca. Cocktails do not have to be scientifically produced, and as she recognizes, sometimes it is just about finding what works along more “spiritual” lines. Her balanced approach to bartending was relieving; the overall vibe of the bar felt both renewing and healing, not overwhelming. After finishing the cocktails, we were served some delectable chicharrines with a chili-lime salt, and some soft, warm tamales from Lupita’s in East Harlem.
The warmly painted walls inside Veselka envelop the room in folky florals and traditional Ukrainian symbols. Hanging from the ceiling are glowing milk glass globes that seem to replace the sun or moon depending on the time of day — and it could be any time at all, as Veselka is open for twenty-four hours, seven days a week, serving a smorgasbord of pierogis, bowls of borscht, and other expertly prepared comfort foods — Ukrainian and otherwise. Wlodymyr Darmochwal planted roots for Veselka when, as one of the founders of the neighborhood Plast organization (akin to the Ukrainian boy scouts, teaching survival skills and Ukrainian language), he was asked to create a weekend study program for the boys. In response, he opened a five-and-dime style counter at the corner of East 9th Street and Second Avenue where the boys could buy paper clips, cigarettes, lighters, and, notably, bowls of borscht and other basic Ukrainian foods. The business expanded into another storefront on East 9th Street a decade later. After Wlodymyr’s passing in 1972, it was taken over by his stepson, Tom Birchard, who was later joined by his son, Jason. Today, having worked at the restaurant since he was a teenager, Jason has “done every single job possible here except cook the borscht. ”When Jason joined the team, one of his first projects was to find out, “How late can we stay open? ” It turns out the answer was “all night. ” As Tom and Jason once again prepare to expand the restaurant into an adjoining storefront on 9th Street, they are eager to continue serving the next generation the kind of traditional Ukrainian food that Wlodymyr would have had at his counter more than sixty years ago.
Shahrzad Ghajar, founder of the gift shop Spooksvilla + friends, takes curation to another level. She meets with each of the artists represented in the store and personally chooses every piece showcased on the walls and shelves. Shahrzad, herself, is a talented artist, and many of her designs are featured in the shop. By focusing on the artists, Spooksvilla ensures that everything for sale - from apparel to wall art - is one-of-a-kind. “We like to be representative of original people doing original things— be it art, products, charms or any other kind of cool item, " said Ethan Velez, manager of Spooksvilla. Despite the fact that multiple artists contribute to Spooksvilla, the store is not a hodgepodge of styles. Rather, the art is united in its bold, whimsical designs. A favorite is the label on the bottle of the rose bath salts - a piece of art in itself. A woman with purple skin and purple hair rides a pink dragon, holding, of course, roses.
Serving an interesting but decadent assortment of coffees, hot cakes, desserts, Japanese tapas, sandwiches, pasta, and more, Hi-Collar functions as many things. In the morning the atmosphere is subdued and relaxed like a coffee shop, as customers come to enjoy “kissaten” – a term to describe Japanese-style coffee shops. The lady we spoke to at Hi-Collar told us their coffee selection is extensive and that there are a variety of beans to choose from. Not only is there the opportunity to select the bean varietal, but one can also choose how the coffee is made as well: pour over, aeropress, or siphon—each method drawing out a distinct flavor. For the non-coffee drinker, there are teas and even a fruit milkshake. As the afternoon wears on and evening approaches, Hi-Collar becomes a bar complete with wine, sake, and beer. Inquiring about the name, we found that Hi-Collar is in fact a term that came to be during the Japanese Jazz Age, when Western culture infiltrated Japan and many men were seen wearing Western style high collars. The only seating available is at the long bar, and the beautiful flowers and lamps that hang from the ceiling add to the allure of this multifaceted nook on 10th.
The essence of Duo is in its name; it is two things at once. It is dulled colors and clean lines, minimalist in feel but simultaneously filled with warmth and softness. Both young and old, vibrant and calm, it is modern and fresh but brings to mind memories of simpler times: of handwritten letters, cozy Sunday afternoons and soft breezes over the wide open fields of northern Minnesota, the owners’ home state. Conflicting and complementing all at once, Duo is the product of two minds at work. Sisters Wendy and LaRae Kangas have created a perfect little fashion oasis that fits right in with the small town vibes of Manhattan’s East Village. Growing up, Wendy and LaRae pestered each other and fought over clothes, as siblings will do, but in 2008 they decided to open up a shop together. Today, they work with dealers and emerging independent designers throughout the country and pick all their clothing, accessories and home goods by hand, combining masculine and feminine styles with modern silhouettes and vintage traces to curate a timeless collection of quality, classic pieces. “It’s a very personal process, ” they told me, “and we put a lot of love into our shop and our collections. ” Nothing at Duo is mass-produced, and most of their merchandise is recycled. The sisters pour their hearts into the shop and work hard to stay true to themselves while keeping an eye toward the future, expanding their business into the world of e-commerce and social media. “It’s important to stay current and give the customers what they want, ” they said. They love what they do, and working with family makes it even more fun, according to the sisters. “It makes work smooth when you don’t have to verbalize what you’re thinking, ” they told me, “We just know what each other is thinking and it makes choosing products and daily operations much easier. ”Duo is a celebration of creative spirit. It is clear that the sisters revel in the one-of-a-kind individuality of each and every one of their customers who come to them looking for pieces that will express their own unique style. When explaining what they love about their work, they said, “It’s great to make a customer feel better when they walk out the door. ”