While Danny Mena has worked hard to capture a real taste of his native Mexico City with Hecho en Dumbo, his six-year-old pop-up-turned-restaurant, he shies away from using the word “authentic” to describe his cuisine. “I hate using that word,” he says. “If you take something out of its native land, it always transforms.” He acknowledges, though, that when he opens his second restaurant Sembrado on Thursday, he’ll be unveiling an effort ” to do something very traditional.”
Drawing inspiration from the roadside stands where he makes numerous stops on trips home, Mena is opening a Mexico City-style taqueria, where he’ll serve a couple of different kinds of tacos that are staples south of the border but rare here in New York City. Most prominently, he’s rolling out tacos al pastor made from pork carved from a slowly rotating spit called a trompo. He’ll also do tacos al carbon, forgoing braised meat fillings in favor of piling pepper-flecked nubs of grill-charred beef, chicken, or chorizo into corn tortillas.
But while he’ll adhere to original recipes, he’s giving his ingredients, at least, a very New York-centric upgrade: “We’ll use Berkshire pork for the pastor and free-range chicken,” he says. “We want to grab something that’s good and use really quality ingredients to elevate it.”
Similarly, his dining room won’t exactly recall the Spartan shacks that often house pastor spits in his home country; Mena notes that he instead tried to strike a balance between tradition and a nicer aesthetic. So as you would in Mexico, you’ll be able to watch the trompo in the open kitchen–but you’ll do it at a dark wood table beneath Spanish movie posters or while sitting at a bar shellacked with green glass tiles.
Mena brought on La Newyorkina queen Frany Gerson (who’s responsible for the pineapple jalapeño paleta, one of our 100 favorite dishes of 2013) to take on the pastry program, and she’ll bring not just paletas but Mexican sundaes to the mix, turning out flavors of ice cream like fresas con crema (strawberries in cream), Mexican vanilla, Mexican chocolate, and goat’s milk caramel, topped with things like candied pecans and natural raw sugar cane.
The food matches to a drink program that Mena hopes will proselytize New Yorkers to another Mexican creation: mezcal. “I love mezcal, and it comes with a sense of Mexican pride,” he says. After years of producing second-rate agave spirits, “there’s a huge resurgence of mezcal in Mexico City, and we’re really happy with what we can produce.” Mena partners on his own mezcal brand, Mezcales de Leyenda, and you’ll be able to taste that plus about two dozen different kinds of the spirit when the doors open; tastes will be served in candle holders as they are in Mexico. Are cocktails more your speed? No problem: Mena enlisted Cesar Chavez, formerly of Apotheke, to head the bar. He’ll roll out four different kinds of mezcal margaritas plus other drinks imbued with Mexican flavors. That doesn’t mean tequila, though: “We’ll accommodate tequila margaritas, too, if people ask for them, but the margarita is a great way to get people who don’t know mezcal to try it,” says Mena.
Sembrado opens its doors Thursday night and will be open for lunch and dinner daily.