How to Torture Your English-as-a-Second-Language Date

July 19, 2011

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Empellón in the West Village

Bring him to Empellón for dinner.

Let me say first off:  Empellón is a great restaurant.  The food: delicious.  The service:  friendly and accommodating.  The spirit list:  long.  But my-oh-my the clamor in there!

We had early dinner reservations on a recent thunderstorming summer night.  I arrived promptly at reservation time – 6:15pm – but my date did not.  As I checked in (to the fully booked restaurant) I said my date was not here yet, they smiled and said “No problem, just let us know when he’s here,” and offered me a seat at the bar.  The bar was almost-full and there were only a handful of tables occupied…and at that point you could hear the music over the talking, but the talking was loud enough that the place felt lively.  This sound level was to change all too soon.

By the time SLB (Second-Language-Boy) arrived at 7:00 – yes, that’s right, I said 7:00(!) – the place was almost entirely full and you could hardly hear yourself think. Seriously crazy-loud.  I was worried that we were so long past our reservation time (and the place was packed and turning walk-ins away) that we would have lost our slot (and I wouldn’t have blamed them a bit) – but they couldn’t have been nicer and more welcoming and happy to seat us.  Not an iota of annoyance or tsk-tsking….and they had every right to be…so that helped me get passed my annoyance at SLB and settle in to enjoy dinner.

Empellon is Alex Stupak’s take on Mexican Food.  Don’t think chili relleno and mounds of ropa vieja, sticky yellow rice and refried beans scooped onto a paper plate – think high-end re-imagined Mexican, and you’re there. 

Which was great for me – and will be for you, too, when you eat there – but only added to SLB’s discomfort.  He was already feeling nervous having arrived so late…

[And his reason?  Because it was raining, he ran home to take a shower after work and it took longer than he thought it would.  Um, it was still raining after the shower – it was one of those rain-all-day-and-all-night summer-thunderstorms –  so what was the point of that? And who risks being *that* late to a first date?  I mean, come on now. ]

And then he sat down to a menu that wasn’t what he thought it would be (he was thinking traditional Mexican ground-beef-tacos and refried-beans) and he didn’t recognize a lot of the items or words on the menu…..and on top of all that, it was so unbelievably loud in there, whenever the waitress came over and said anything or asked us a question, he just looked at me like a fish that suddenly finds itself laying on its side, gasping for air, wondering where all the water has gone.

I did my best to explain, but I was shouting into the noise.  At one point, I think he just decided to nod and agree so we could get past ordering already and maybe start talking about something he’d have some hope of understanding. Poor guy.  So when the waitress came, aside from his main course, I don’t think he really knew what we were ordering.  

The first real dawn of recognition – or simply hearing – through the din was when I ordered a different main course than he did – he interrupted and asked why I was ordering that…I told him I had heard it was really, really good – and he said “Oh, maybe I should get that, too, then,” and turned to the waitress to change his order…I took quick breath, grabbed his arm to stop him and set the tone for this – and all future dates – when I clearly said “We can never order the same thing.  Never.”   He gulped for air, went back to looking confused and I finished ordering.

Just so you don’t think I’m horrible – once the waitress left, I very nicely – and with a smile on my face – explained that the fun in going somewhere new is to order different things so we get to share and each try a number of dishes….he said he understood and just thought that since I had said I liked his choice he thought we were both getting it… we both awaited our food and drinks happy….really, happy, I promise you! *smile*

[But in addition to not leaving a girl sitting at a bar and possibly losing your reservation…how do you get to be 40 years old and not know about co-ordinating the dinner order?  Maybe that’s not how things work in the old country…but even so, you’ve lived here for 5 years…and I bet you got American tv shows and movies there *and* with subtitles so you’d be sure to know what was going on in that eisode of “Friends’ or what have you……I’m just saying….*smile*]

Ordering finally out of the way, we started with a couple of drinks -( hmmm, I wonder if we had started drinking before looking at the menu if the translations and explanations would have gone better…or worse? *smile*)  I had tried something from the cocktail list during my time at the bar – the Empelloma:  Reposado with House-Made Grapefruit Soda and Smoked Salt – but as I hadn’t loved it (it needed to be a bit sweeter to really be enjoyable), and I think SLB’s head would’ve exploded if he didn’t at least recognize the drinks we were ordering, we both opted for a Margarita on the rocks.  Simple and to the point and much to his relief!

We struggled in the din to hear each other until <thankfully> our order of Guacamole with Chips and Two Salsas arrived to fill our mouths and make conversing less important.  The guacamole was good – but the standouts were the salsas – Smoked Cashew and Arbol Chile.  These were so good – especially the Smoked Cashew – that when they asked if they could clear the chips and salsa before our mains arrived, we both protectively covered them with our hands and said no.  There was no way they were going away until the salsa bowls were empty, believe me.  Next visit I’m going to skip the guac and go for the Chips with Four Salsas.  Those first two salsas were so, so good, I’m rather obsessed with trying them all.

He wanted a salad, so even though he didn’t know what Arugula or Jicama were, he took my word for it they made up a salad…and I went for one of the Queso Fundidos with warm tortillas – the Red and Green Chorizo.  His salad was was tasty – with great texture and a refreshing bite to the dressing –  and my Queso was outstanding!  So much yummy, cheesy goodness.  By the time we finished this – and we were sharing – I was pretty much full up. (And this is another reason I’m skipping the guacamole next time.  So much good food still to come.)

The only word on the menu other than taco that I’m *sure* he understood was “Lobster”… so he excitedly ordered the Lobster Tacos as his main. 

Lobster Tacos

These were impressive!  If you look at the photo, you’ll see how big the lobster chunks were – even a whole claw or two – and they were delicious, served on those fresh tortillas with giant corn, cheese and a sauce made with epazote ( an herb often used in Mexican cooking).  

I went for the  Chicken Tacos and both SLB and I were very happy that I did.  For as delicious at those Lobster Tacos were (I still drool when I think of how tasty they managed to make the giant corn. Seriously, I’d love to know just what magic they worked on those over-sized kernels…) – my chicken tacos were twice as good!

Chicken Tacos

Large pieces of dark meat chicken in a somewhat peanut-y sauce were topped with some sharper-than-you’d-think pickled onions….and what a combination they made.  SLB, who had told me  that Lobster was one of his all time favorites (while we were shouting at each other waiting for the chips and salsas to arrive), took one bite and said to me “Oh yes, you heard right – the chicken tacos are better!”   He said it with a smile, so I *think* he forgave me for not allowing us to both order it…but then again, they were really, really good, so maybe not. 

The tacos are available in orders of two or three…but unless you want some to take home, I say two would be plenty.  We had each eaten one chicken and one lobster – not so much that we were hungry enough to, but because they were so good you hated to stop eating them – and he was gentlemanly enough to let me take both of the extras home. 

Hmm, I wonder if that was because he was feeling guilty for being so late or because he just didn’t know how to ask for his in English.  Either way, thank you SLB. *smile*

23 West Fourth Street
at West 10th Street
New York, NY 10014

Eat It or Skip It Verdict:  Eat It!

Filed Under: Eat It or Skip It, NYC, Restaurant

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