Normally, when you think about where to eat Mexican food in the United States, the places that come to mind are California, Texas and New Mexico. Five years ago, though, chef and restaurant owner Danny Mena was at the forefront of getting New York City added to that list when he opened Hecho en Dumbo, a contemporary Mexican eatery in Brooklyn. That shop moved to the Lower East Side in 2010, and this past summer Mena debuted another place in the East Village, Sembrado, which is his take on a classic taquería. Lured in with the cozy scent of meat roasting on a spit, aka al pastor, the signature dish of the restaurant, I recently sat down with Mena in his new shop to discuss the rise of Mexican food in the city.
It appears Mexico City-style food has been popping up all over the island. Do you see it as a trend?
Totally! When we first started five years ago, sit-down Mexican restaurants were few and far between. They were either really fancy, fine dining, Richard Sandoval themes, or it was a hole-in-the-wall type of place. Now, you see more and more places like ours, including Los Tacos No. 1, and less of the places that are the clichés of Mexican food, like the Tex-Mex joints and [mini-chains like] Benny’s Burritos or San Loco. There now are joints where they do things like a Brussels sprouts taco, or places like Tres Carnes where they have “Texican,” or Mexican without the Tex-Mex, where they use brisket. It’s a modern infusion. Then you have [Alex] Stupak [of Empellon] doing his thing, and I think you start to see the diversity of foods that you would expect in a city like this. Today, you can find Mexican food on the really low end and [it’s] cheap but delicious [and also in] the high-end, fancy, niche and modern eateries.
Where do your two restaurants, Hecho en Dumbo and Sembrado, fit into that scheme?
The goal of Hecho en Dumbo and Sembrado is to be quintessential Mexico City. With Hecho en Dumbo, the idea is to be kind of like, I hate to use the word “modern,” but more contemporary Mexico City, without it being overly cheesy in the décor. We try to keep things typical of how they are done in Mexico, though with this being New York, we make sure the presentations are really nice. As for Sembrado, one of the reasons I wanted to open this place was for tacos al pastor [where the pork is grilled on a spit like shawarma meat]. Everyone I talked to loved tacos al pastor and there aren’t many places to get this traditional Mexico City dish in New York, so I wanted to open a place that everyone could experience.
Also, here taquerías have a lowbrow reputation as just being a food you get on the street quickly. That’s what tacos are for, but there does exist restaurants where you can have a sit-down meal of tacos. I think people degrade Mexican food because they automatically think it should be cheap. I wanted to showcase that you could have a good meal that doesn’t have to be expensive, but doesn’t have to be dirt-cheap either. Sembrado was to fill that void of having a lowbrow, rustic, very classic and traditional meal.
Do you think the food scene in Mexico is also changing?
You know, there weren’t really Mexican restaurants in Mexico 15 years ago. All it had were little holes-in-the-wall or a little fonda, which just serves your basic soup, an entrée and a dessert. If there were any sit-down restaurants, they wouldn’t be Mexican, it would be Chinese, Japanese or an Italian joint. Kind of like how American food used to just be fast food, but now it’s different and more gourmet. I think Mexico is starting to look at Mexican food that way and embrace their own national products. For example, before, no one in Mexico would drink tequila; tequila was number three [in drink popularity], and now it’s moving up. It’s all part of the farm-to-table, local and artisanal thing that is starting to take off.
I know you serve plenty of tequila at both places, but Sembrado focuses more on that other Mexican liquor, mezcal. What made you decide to bring that product to the forefront of your cocktail program?
I love mezcal, and I think in New York City you really don’t see a lot of places with mezcal. I find that every bartender and every person who is really into spirits loves mezcal, too. So, why not try and showcase another piece of Mexico and give this bar another edge? Because, as much as I love tequila, tequila bars have saturated the market, and it only comes from one region, one agave plant. To me, it’s a little boring. Mezcal comes from so many different regions and plants, and they can be so amazing. Plus, right now, it’s the golden age of mezcal. There is enough of a demand here in the States and in Mexico, but, because the demand is low enough, no one has had to alter the process or the alcohol for the sake of getting premium prices. In Mexico, you can still find cheaper mezcals that are very good. This year, about 20 new brands came out, and I wouldn’t be surprised if 20 more come out next year.
How does the food at your restaurants differ from what you find in California or Texas?
People come from California or Texas or elsewhere and say, “Well, I am from California and I know Mexican food.” But you just know California Mexican food. There are so many other types. True, it’s much more evolved in California than in New York City, and there are some authentic, great places there, but at the end of the day, it’s like saying I am from Brooklyn and I know Italian food. Unless you are from Italy, or you have been to Italy, or unless you are talking about Italy and [certain] regions, well, it’s kind of the same thing.
Where do you like to go for a meal when you’re not at your restaurants?
Well, I don’t go for Mexican too often, though last night I went to one by my house [in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn] called Castro’s. It kind of fits the mold of what Americans think Mexican food should be. Nothing is great, but a lot of people think it is. I know what to get, and it satisfies a need. It’s like Mexican junk food. Another place is Kuma Inn, which I love. I think the price is right, the ambience is right and they have a Chinese sausage that is amazing. I also like pizza a lot, and Totonno’s in Coney Island is my favorite. They have a pepperoni and onion pizza that is so good. I love Fette Sau in Williamsburg. Overall, I am not picky when I eat. Since there are so many restaurants in the city, I rarely repeat them. I want to explore Queens more and try some of the restaurants there.
Photos Courtesy of Carlos Wittenstein