Mexican for Dumbo

Hecho en DumboPhoto: Julie Mack

You never know where you might stumble upon an exceptional taco in this town: at a remote soccer field in Red Hook, perhaps, or in midtown, at the Crystal Pavilion, the basement-level atrium that’s home to Pampano Taqueria. Now you might add to the short list the Dumbo General Store, a business created almost seven years ago to foster community spirit in a corner of Brooklyn that’s more a case study in explosive urban gentrification than a bona fide neighborhood. At various times, the lofty space has housed an art-supply store, a café, a wine-and-panini bar (its daytime incarnation), and currently, in the back corner, a Scandinavian design shop. Lately, it’s also the unlikely host to a makeshift Mexican restaurant that somehow has operated under the radar all summer, and recently expanded from weekend-only to nightly service.

Hecho en Dumbo, the creation of chef Danny Mena and his General Store collaborators, is more than a menu of Mexican antojitos, or corn-masa-based snacks. It’s a nightly transformation, via food, drink, and music, into a slice of Mexico City, where the chef grew up before attending culinary school in New York. Until recently, Mena was working at the Modern, but he felt the urge to cook his native cuisine—not in emulation of the haute Mexican restaurants of Manhattan or the scruffy taquerias of the city’s immigrant enclaves, but somewhere in between. Initially, his plan was to take to the streets with friend and General Store barman Ethan Smith in a groovy taco-dispensing bus like a culinarily inclined Partridge Family. “We wanted to elevate street food,” Mena says. When that didn’t work out (“It just looked like too much time on a bus”), and General Store owner Anna Castellani offered Smith and Mena the opportunity to play with the dinner concept at the DGS, the pair jumped at the chance. Now Mena shops regularly at the Essex Street Market for Mexican ingredients and plunders Foragers Market, his Dumbo gourmet-grocery neighbor, for sustainably raised meats. Hecho en Dumbo means “made in Dumbo,” and refers to the hand-pressed tortillas, the fresh salsas, and the community spirit the whole venture is meant to foment.

As interloping Manhattanites, the Underground Gourmet is in no position to debate Dumbo’s sociocultural climate, but we can speak to the high quality and compulsive tastiness of Mena’s food. Antojitos are inherently small—one translation is “little whims”—and so are Mena’s plates, which you can think of as Mexican tapas or as distinctively delicious bar food (especially since the space still feels and functions more like a bar than a restaurant). This is not the place to stanch a gargantuan appetite, or to gulp down massive combination plates of gloppy sauces and blankets of goopy cheese until your eyes bubble. You won’t miss any of that, though, after a bite of the ensalada rosaura, a citrusy thatch of julienned cabbage, queso fresco, and slivered avocado, sprinkled with crispy bits of fried hibiscus flower. Crunchy and refreshing, it’s a nice textural contrast to the exceptionally light, almost fluffy guacamole.

If there is a unifying theme, it is corn masa. Mena presses it into tortillas for his tacos, served three to an order and filled with a choice of toothsome wine-and-lime-braised steak, banana-leaf-steamed Berkshire pork with pink pickled onions, or strips of poblano chiles and cheese. He sculpts it into slightly thicker rounds called sopes, which he paints with black-bean purée, homemade crema fresca, and pulpy red and green salsas, and tops with spicy, crumbly chorizo, pulled chicken, or cactus. And he wraps it around black beans and cheese for his special-menu memelas, puffy little mini-blintzes of sorts, with crimped edges. The toasty, earthy richness of the masa is juxtaposed with the pungent zip of Mena’s salsas, bursting with fresh herbs and just enough heat. It’s all so good, you find yourself tempted to keep ordering additional rounds of food throughout the meal the way heavy drinkers order shots of whiskey.

Flour tortillas play their part, too, as springy wrappers for dainty panini-pressed “burritas,” as tastefully understuffed (but abundantly flavored) as you’re likely to find. And they’re used as warm scoops for the queso fundido, a gratin dish of melted Oaxaca cheese and the add-in of your choice (the chorizo is best). Perhaps the name is an unintentional warning, but if there’s one antojito that seems slightly outclassed by the others, it’s the mollete defectuoso—black-bean purée, melted mozzarella, and pico de gallo spooned onto a warm slice of ciabatta, like a Mexican bruschetta.

It’s part of the shareable $17 sample platter, which is still a fine way to experience Mena’s menu. The cocktail list, diplomatically divided into “Mexico City” and “New York City” categories, merits sampling, too—especially the Michelada Cubana, a salt-rimmed glass of Dos Equis lager tricked out with hot sauce, lime juice, and Worcestershire. For dessert, the sextet of fruit-topped, dulce de leche–drizzled coconut financières called “torta del cielo” trumps the increasingly ubiquitous churros.

With twosomes and threesomes clustered discretely at far-flung ends of its communal tables some weeknights, Hecho en Dumbo might not have achieved the level of social interaction its owners had hoped for, but thanks to the ads plastered all over the concrete columns and walls, you can still find a carpenter or a Pilates instructor, enroll in a pottery class, or pick up a used stretcher bar—not to mention some mighty fine, unexpectedly authentic, and skillfully made Mexican food.

Hecho en Dumbo (at the Dumbo General Store)
Address: 111 Front St., nr. Washington St., Dumbo, Brooklyn; 718-855-5288
Hours: Monday through Wednesday 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Thursday through Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight; closed Sunday.
Prices: $5 to $17, cash only.
Ideal Meal: Ensalada rosaura, steak tacos, sopes de nopal, torta del cielo.
Note: With only Mena in the kitchen most nights, service can be leisurely, to put it mildly, and on Saturdays the mood becomes more festive, with live music and menu specials like duck-confit mole. A good way to start things off is with the tequila con sangrita—a shot glass of fancy sipping tequila with a spicy tomato chaser.
Scratchpad: For what is ultimately bar food in a bar setting, the flavors and freshness of the Mexican antojitos merit at least a couple of stars. The idea of doing it in the first place and doing it so well deserves another.

Mexican for Dumbo