"One of the things I look to be is to be a kind of benchmark, so that when you come to New York we're one that you have to try."
Danny Mena didn't plan to open Mexican restaurants. He didn't really plan to be a chef. A picky eater as a child, Mena started exploring food when his first failed attempt at cooking sent him nightly to eat dinner at friends' houses in Mexico City, and his eyes were opened. While studying for a degree in engineering and working in Mexico and the United States, he cooked for friends and silenced a desired to go to culinary school. But after a job in New York again disappointed him, he enrolled in the French Culinary Institute, his engineering life giving away for good.
Mena's wildly successful Hecho en Dumbo blossomed from a pop-up into a full restaurant with inventive cuisine and a dangerous drink menu, and his recently-opened Sembrado in the East Village features tacos al carbon and a wicked mezcal program. Both places have serious offerings for Dia de los Muertos running this week/end, Hecho featuring a prix fixe menu of "scary foods" and Sembrado offering tacos de Moronga and Lengua and Pan de Muerto from La Newyorkina. So just in time for this celebration we sat down to get Mena's thoughts on Mexican cuisine in New York and where he fits into it, six years after he started.
You've been open here a few months now. How do you feel? Good. Our brunches and weekends are good, so I'm happy right now. I think once people catch on to what it is we're doing... We walked around a bit in the neighborhood and found a lot of very weird concepts, mashed potatoes on tacos...
Does that piss you off? No! No, no, no—I'm not self-righteous. I'm proud of what we do here and at Hecho—very simple, clean, Mexico City-style food. A friend from Mexico City said, "It's so Mexico City!" I don't know exactly what makes it "Mexico City," but friends from other parts of Mexico have been quick to point out that's been my influence, since they like different things in other parts.
Can you describe that style? It's kind of hard to... Well, what makes a good taco? I think it's balance—a good tortilla, a good protein or filling, and a good salsa...
You make your own tortillas here? Yes, we make our own tortillas, both flour and corn. I think it goes back to the idea that a good taco starts with the tortilla, like a good sandwich starts with the baguette or whatever. If you focus on the seasonings in the taco but the shell falls apart, it's like eating a loaded sandwich on Wonder Bread. Or it has no flavor, or a chalky flavor that takes away from it. One of the things I want to get into is making our own masa, grinding the corn and cooking it down. But right now it's just salt, corn, water, and a little bit of olive oil to make it a touch more pliable. Is this being recorded?
Yes. [Whispering] I like Taco Bell. I tweet about it every time I go. I don't know if the overloaded cheese / lettuce / sour cream thing came from the original burritos or where it started to happen, but Mexican food in the United States is "the bigger is better." I really like that, but there's something just delicious about a clean taco, showcasing Berkshire and all-natural meats and things like that.
"Traditional" and "authentic" are two touchy words when describing Mexican food here. Do those come into play for you? We stay away from using the word "authentic" because as soon as you cross the border—as soon as you use the water here, as soon as you change a chili—it's different. We're trying to make our own queso fresco so I was watching a video on it and as soon as this lady said, "So first we get the milk," and pulled out a bucket I was like, "That's it! We can't do it!" We have to buy goat milk, in a quart container! So you always lose that. But anything we do is inspired by and trying to show off what Mexico can offer.
In a sense I'm more of a purist and try to be true to the culture and food, but the more research I do the more I start to see that it's all a hybridization or fusion anyway. I recently got a cookbook from 1871 and was like, "Ah, I'm going to see some really classic Mexican food." And it was right after the French invasion, so 50% of the book was foie gras and all this French influence! Mexico City is fusion. So in a sense I believe I'm a purist because I always try to make sure that what the dish is called, it is—if I call something "carnitas" it had better be cooked in its own fat.
And how does New York play directly into your menu? We're not there yet but I think we can make a better taco than you'd get in Mexico because of the quality of the meat we can use. I call it a "New York sensibility"—a little better setting, a little better plating, and using local and organic. I don't want to eat chicken that's farmed—it really grosses me out—and I don't want to serve it. It's worth it to spend a little bit more. We're getting a little heat for that, and we're going to reduce our prices a little bit because of it, but if we can get people to realize that everything's made by hand, I think people will appreciate it, and at the end of the day it's even worth it to me to take that hit.
Where do you see yourself fitting the landscape of New York Mexican cuisine now, then? When I first came to New York I didn't think there were any options to get good Mexican. There are things that taste good, but are lacking in high-quality ingredients and the tortillas aren't good. Then you have Pampano and others that are beautiful, but because you go into that setting you lose a little of the soul of Mexico City and what traditional Mexican food is—there's something exciting about something a little greasy and eating with your hands. There's reason why you see all these taquerias—the foundation of the food is fantastic. Hecho evolved and we had a lot of options to do things where we could use a little more imagination, but I have always wanted this sort of taqueria.
One of the things I look to be is to be a kind of benchmark, so that when you come to New York we're one that you have to try. We're middle of the road, price-wise, and a good foundation of what Mexico can offer. And from there you can go try something more modern like La Esquina or Empellón or go down to other places that are also very good but are simpler.