Beyond to-go tacos and bulging burritos, New York’s Mexican options were once pretty bleak. And the more ambitious restaurants were pricey and fussy. In the past few years, however, a new breed of cantina has helped bring life to the genre. These rollicking places—serious about cooking, yes, but also devoted to tequila-shot benders—aren’t Tex-Mex or Cal-Mex; hip-Mex is more like it.
Hecho en Dumbo joins Cabrito, La Esquina and Barrio Chino in this new pantheon. Like its compadres, the spot on the Bowery favors authentic South of the Border cuisine over college-dive gringo fare.
The restaurant started out three years ago as a weekend-only pop-up in Dumbo (though its precursor is closed, the name endures). The Manhattan version, building on the Brooklyn one’s considerable following, is a full-fledged hot spot, with killer drinks, an ear-splitting soundtrack and very good food.
Young chef Danny Mena, a Mexico City native—and a veteran of Blue Hill and the Modern—proves his country’s cooking is about more than just heat. Instead of throwing down the gauntlet with chilies, he plays up the nuance of a cuisine that deserves respect.
Working in a showcase kitchen at the far end of the industrial dining room—bare pipes and warehouse lights overhead—Mena prepares an eclectic mix of street eats and urbane composed plates. The high-low menu has every dining scenario covered.
Tiny tacos—fresh corn tortillas filled with garlicky rockfish or fire-licked Niman Ranch short ribs—make great snacks, and bubbling crocks of queso fundido—asadero and Oaxaca cheeses hiding superior house-made chorizo—help keep the effects of the margaritas in check. Shake off the day-after fog at the restaurant’s daily brunch with a rich red rendition of Michoacn-style posole soup thick with guajillo chilies and pulled Berkshire pork.
Mena’s most opulent cooking, while not quite in sync with the setting, would certainly be at home in the affluent precincts of Mexico City. Cold hearts of palm soup—tropical vichyssoise—is light yet beautifully creamy, despite having no cream. A delicate crpe, stuffed with lobster hunks in a smoky pasilla cream sauce, pays homage to the bygone French presence in Mexico, a Napoleonic outpost in the late 19th century.
The chef’s spin on carnitas turns out to be an epic platter of pig: a refined rustic hybrid featuring Berkshire shoulder and ribs alongside confited skin and roasted belly from a boutique-farm porcelet. The succulent meat, as gorgeously blistered as pit-roasted swine, comes with griddled tortillas and an uncharacteristically fiery avocado puree (for everything else, you’ll need to add your own heat from the tabletop salsas).
Although there is no pastry chef, the restaurant still serves some of the most sophisticated Mexican sweets in New York—including pillowy almond cake with intense spiced-chocolate ice cream and a top-notch key lime tart, topped with fluffy meringue (all right, that one’s not really Mexican).
In its first incarnation—when the name made more sense—Hecho en Dumbo was an off-the-grid pioneer. These days, fully formed as a restaurant, it’s en route to becoming a new Mexican classic.
Drink this: The fresh grapefruit-and-Cazadores-tequila Paloma ($12) is among the most refreshing of the potent mescal- and tequila-based drinks, while the spicy Michelada Cubana ($8)—Bohemia beer with iced lime juice and hot sauce—will put hair on your chest.
Eat this: Hearts of palm soup, short-rib tacos, carnitas, lobster crpe
Sit here: The windowless dining room can be deafening. The most sedate seats are at the kitchen counter, which offer great views of the food going out.
Conversation piece: Danny Mena moved to the U.S. to pursue an engineering degree, before switching gears and enrolling in the French Culinary Institute in Soho.
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