For a long time Pedro’s, a divey spot on Jay Street in DUMBO, was the neighborhood’s prime spot for Mexican food. Authentic and inexpensive, the restaurant quickly became out of place among its high-rise, high-priced neighbors — but it was all the more charming for it.
But last spring Anna Castellani, the owner of the DUMBO General Store, just two blocks from Pedro’s, decided to give it a run for its money.
Putting chef Daniel Mena in the kitchen and General Manager Ethan Smith behind the bar, the unassuming art-supply store turned coffee, lunch and brunch venue became a sophisticated space for authentic “antojitos,” or Mexican tapas, with modern cocktails to match.
“We wanted to create something that reflects the cooking and performance spaces of urban Mexico today, and combat the stereotype of Mexico being this completely desolate, impoverished place void of contemporary culture,” said Smith.
Beginning in March, the General Store threw a four-night-a-week eating series, and called it Hecho en DUMBO (which translates to “made in DUMBO”). When the demand for the evenings grew, Castellani decided to go for six nights each week.
Diners — who normally flee DUMBO after dark for more choices in Brooklyn Heights or beyond — kept streaming in to enjoy Mena’s cooking. The chef, who grew up in Mexico City and has a degree from the French Culinary Institute, created a menu that utilized organic produce from the nearby Forager’s Market and Mexican provisions come from the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
In keeping with contemporary Mexican fare, Mena’s small plates and entree-sized dishes are lighter than Mexican food we’ve come to know in the States. Ingredients are used judiciously, not heaped on the plate, so the flavors are clean and distinct.
Starting out, the “sopes,” crisp rounds of stone ground yellow cornmeal, get a smear of black bean puree and homemade “crema fresca” so their pleasantly grainy texture isn’t masked by the other elements. Guacamole is a lush, chunky and well-salted mix, made to order and served with freshly fried tortillas. The chips arrived crisp, hot and redolent of corn oil.
To go with your meal, Smith has devised a cocktail menu divided into “Mexico City” and “New York City” lists. On the New York side are traditional drinks like the “Manhattan” and the “Old Fashioned,” but more adventurous drinkers will try Smith’s “Tequila Con Sangrita,” off the Mexico City lineup.
“Americans have been served really cheap, harsh tequila that’s meant to be gulped down,” said Smith. “We use the finest tequila available, and drinking it is an entirely different experience.” In a deconstructed Bloody Mary with a south-of-the-border accent, the liquor is served in a shot glass and meant to be sipped slowly. Its partner is a tomato juice “chaser” made spicy with lime and “Valentina” a traditional Mexican hot sauce.
Back on the plate, I’d skip the least interesting of the “molletes” (little appetizers), the “mollete defectuoso.” Warm black bean puree and mozzarella topped with “pico de gallo” (a spicy Spanish relish) on ciabatta bread is reminiscent of tired bruschetta.
Instead, pick the “picaditas de jaiba,” two little “sopes” topped with fresh, sweet shreds of Dungeness crab. The delicate shellfish meat is played off by slices of avocado and contrasted with a drizzle of hot jalapeno oil.
Just as delightful is the “ensalada rosaura,” a slaw of cabbage in a sprightly citrus dressing. The light dish includes a sprinkling of mild queso fresco and hibiscus flowers that look like copper colored shards and taste like lemony potato chips.
The duck mole is a standout, must-have dish. Mena employs duck leg cooked in its own fat, and the richness of the game and crispness of its skin is evident even beneath a layer of multi-dimensional mole sauce. With a side of moist, jalepeno-spiked rice, the dish is an event in itself.
While diners gather around the two long communal and smaller, private tables, Mexican singers softly croon in the front of the space. There’s a feeling of something intimate unfolding, a salon of sorts that melds sophisticated elements of Mexican and American nightlife.
Hecho En DUMBO (at the DUMBO General Store. 111 Front St., between Washington and Adams streets in DUMBO) accepts cash only. Dishes: $8-$17. Dinner is served Monday through Saturday. Subway: F to York Street, A, C to High Street. For information, call (718) 855-5288 or visit www.hechoendumbo.com.