Hot chef: Danny Mena goes from picky eater to two restaurants
Danny Mena calls his story “the antithesis of the typical chef backstory.” A picky eater during childhood, Mena’s mother made him almost the same meal every day well into his teen years. His culinary horizons eventually broadened, and in college at Virginia Tech he started to host dinner parties for friends. Mena graduated with an engineering degree, but after a stint in the biz realized cooking was where he needed to be.
Hecho en Dumbo started as a pop-up in 2007 before moving to its permanent digs near Astor Place. Recently, the Mexico City native opened Sembrado, a taqueria where guests order tacos and Mezcal by checking off items on a piece of paper that they hand to their waiter. The low-lit, cozy ambiance is the perfect spot for first date, if you ask us — choosing which tacos to order is a good first test of compatibility!
Tell us: How does a picky eater become a chef?
[It] was a very slow transition. It’s almost unfathomable that I was once a picky eater, not only with my current mentality that I like eating almost everything, but more so, I love to try new things. As a child, and it maybe was translated from my parents as they were picky when they grew up, I was never really forced to try anything new. My parents got divorced when I was 16 and so for dinner, after a botched experiment to cook for myself, I decided to go friend-hopping where I would have to eat what was given to me. And being taught proper manners, I learned to clean my plate!
How are your two restaurants similar, and how are they not?
Both restaurants have the same ethos: trying to represent Mexican food as accurately as possible. I try to create food that I grew up with, food that I love. Hecho en Dumbo has progressed over the years, and has given me great opportunities to experiment with all different regions of Mexico, all different ingredients and all different forms of cooking. Sembrado is taking a step back and creating a style of food that is something very specific that I loved as a child and I continue to eat when I go to Mexico. This type of taqueria is rarely seen here in New York and I love the idea being able to create something unique and traditional at the same time.
Why did you want to focus on tacos for your spinoff? Is there another food you one day want to build a menu around?
If I ever do another restaurant it would have a different theme for sure. There is so much great regional food, I would always want the ability to showcase another aspect of it. Tacos was a choice I made first because it is the most traditional of Mexico, but also because nobody is doing a proper pastor and I need my fill! I’ve been too long in New York without a good taco al pastor!
We often think of tequila when it comes to Mexican food. Why did you want to showcase Mezcal at Sembrado?
Mezcal has kind of been a game changer for Mexico. For the first time, Mexicans are now overtly proud of a spirit we produce. Brandy is the most consumed alcohol in Mexico and tequila was always considered for the working class. Now Mezcal has caught on so well in Mexico, that we have become a very proud nation. For Sembrado I wanted to offer a spirit that is not well known here yet, but also that has a good availability that allows us to really showcase what Mezcal has to offer.
What would you cook to impress somebody?
I would do a seafood dish. I don’t know if there is a specific recipe, but the bright, spicy, limey, interesting flavors that Mexico has to offer really shines with a seafood dish. Pescado a la Veracruzana is a great example, with capers and jalapenos, tomatoes and white wine, etc. on a simple bed of rice. [It] shows off how simple can be fantastic.
Celebrate this weekend
Contrary to popular belief, Mexican Independence Day is not Cinco de Mayo — it’s actually celebrated on Sept. 16, the anniversary of El Grito de Dolores (the shout that began the Mexican War of Independence in 1810). Hecho en Dumbo is launching a new brunch menu on Sept. 15 and introducing a regular performance series on Saturdays and Sundays (think Mexican folk music, an all-female mariachi group). Across the bridge, Miranda (80 Berry St., Brooklyn, 718-387-0711) is serving up $5 Micheladas and a special antiojo (“little cravings”) menu. And Guacamole Fest continues at Maya (1191 First Ave., 212-585-1818), with regional flavors and $ margs.