Made in Mexico | Danny Mena
Made in Mexico
By Danny Mena with Nils Bernstein
Intro: Welcome to the number one cookbook podcast, Cookery by the Book, with Suzy Chase. She's just a home cook in New York City, sitting at her dining room table talking to cookbook authors.
Danny Mena: My name is Danny Mena and my cookbook is Made in Mexico, The Cookbook.
Suzy Chase: Anthony Bourdain wrote, "And as much as we think we know and love it, we have barely scratched the surface of what Mexican food really is. It is not melted cheese over tortilla chips." Now when you opened Heche en Dumbo on Bowery and Fourth Street, you didn't offer lettuce, cream, or cheese on the tacos. Talk to me about your particular view on authentic Mexican cuisine.
Danny Mena: Born and raised in Mexico, there is a sensibility about what is and what is not Mexican food. And so when I moved to New York, there were a few places they were doing things pretty spot on. But by far and large, there was really, the idea of kind of the Taco Bell taco was still king. And so when we opened Hecho in Dumbo, my whole impetus was to try to really showcase a side of Mexico that I think people in New York or another parts of the United States had really not seen.
And so we kind of started off and we were very opposite of most restaurants where whatever the question was, the answer was probably no. And it was like, we didn't do any silverware because we were serving tacos and they're intended to be with your hands, no lettuce, no cream, no cheese. And so it was, at first it was a bit of a struggle or just a bit of a fight, people started accepting and started to understand and start to appreciate that the dish is better without those sorts of other ingredients. And so that was kind of the beginning of Heche en Dumbo.
Suzy Chase: What was your take on Mexican beer at the restaurant?
Danny Mena: So it was kind of that same sort of idea. I mean there was a lot of Mexican beers out there and there's more and more craft. At the time, 10 or 11 years ago, there weren't really any craft beers in the U.S., Mexican craft beers in the U.S. But what we wanted to do also was to showcase something different. So we never had tequila, we never had Patron, beer we never had Corona. And that doesn't necessarily mean anything wrong with either one. We wanted to educate people on the other things. So we pushed always like a one of my favorite beers was Bohemia. And so all of our enchiladas and everything, we started with the Bohemia. And it was something of trying to, once again, that same sort of ethos with the food, with the drinks of saying you're probably ordering it because that's what you think you should be ordering. Well let me show you something else that might be much nicer and educate you a little bit more on what are, what other people consume or what else exists in Mexico. And it was that same sort of idea.
Suzy Chase: You've said no self-respecting Mexican would ever by store bought salsa.
Danny Mena: I hope I'm not too harsh with that one. But in Mexico only if you're going to go camping and of course you have to have salsa and that is an important part of every meal. Every dish really. But if you have any ability to make a salsa, whether it's just a knife and some ingredients like you would always make it yourself or have it. You never, once it gets store bought and all the additives and everything for preservatives and whatever you have to do to give it a shelf life. It just, it's no longer anywhere close to a decent salsa.
Suzy Chase: It's kind of like hummus. You buy that stuff at the store and then you make it at home and they're two completely different things.
Danny Mena: 100% and once you do it then it's really hard to kind of go back to that.
Suzy Chase: Yeah. So you wrote in the introduction, besides arguments among friends about where to find the best tacos al pastor, food is a lens through which Mexicans discuss class, politics, agricultural, economic and social issues. In 2019, almost 2020 what are Mexicans discussing over food?
Danny Mena: Right now we have, I mean definitely I think politics has really been the number one conversation in Mexico and it really comes a lot from we have a new president in Mexico that has a very high approval rating, a much more kind of socialist sort of view. But also is not getting the, because of the kind of the views, are not getting much investments. Mexico's about to go into a recession and so it's a very polarizing president. So there is a lot of conversation right now going on about where you stand and what line and what side of the presidency do you fall on. And there's a lot of the pre has been kind of dethroned and really was annihilated in a new party called Morena is kind of taken over. So there's a lot of conversation around sort of that, which is really interesting.
Suzy Chase: Your parents separated when you were 16. Now how was that a pivotal point in how you started to look at food?
Danny Mena: My mother was a very loving and wonderful mother and cook and because she had the ability to cook a lot of things, in a sense I was kind of coddled and so I was allowed to be picky. I was allowed to, and not as a negative to my mother because she did amazing. But once she left my father who was not a cook at all, we had very little choice and kind of what to eat. And I started cooking it. This was my first foray into the kitchen and I had some recipe books and I started cooking a little bit. And of course a 16 year old, I was following every recipe as best as I could and the food never came out to that good on the first round. And of course if you copy a recipe, there's very few books that is cooking for one or cooking for two. And so I had all this leftover foods as well. If day one did not taste so great by day three I never wanted to eat again.
So I decided to start going out with my friends. And so, I go to a friend's house and then I'd go to another friend's house and every day of the week. And luckily I had a good amount of friends they were willing to take me in. And so for the next two years, five days a week, I would eat out at a friend's house, at a different friend's house and I would always go around whatever they're home cooking or making. And I was forced at that point that I'd go to someone's house and all of a sudden they're like, there is, I didn't like mushrooms. And so they're like, okay, well we have these mushrooms with steak sauce.
And I was like, treat the mushrooms. I was like, wow, this is really good. And then I was like, oh, this type of pozole or this type of dish. And it was just one after the other. And then I really started that at that point is kind of was a come to Jesus of how great Mexican food was and how great just ingredients are. And it still was the beginning kind of into my love for food, but I didn't really, I still up until I was about probably 30, I still enjoyed cooking more than I enjoyed eating. And it wasn't until now these past 10 years that I think, I love cooking, but eating is really where it's at.
Suzy Chase: So then you went to Virginia Tech and you threw huge dinner parties. Tell me about those.
Danny Mena: We had a nice little apartment and a good group of friends that liked to eat and drink. And so I don't know exactly how the first one came about, but one of my friends, I think for my first one that I kind of did, it was a friend of mine he cooked a chicken Parmesan and it was in his mom's special recipe and everything. And that was like my first dish that I was cooking full-on. And then of course I started cooking Mexican food and one of the dishes that's so easy to do but so much fun and so different is called a sope. And it's basically like a masa round that's a little thicker than a tortilla but smaller and it gets fried. And then usually you put beans and then it can be chicken, it can be chorizo, it can be any kind of steak, lettuce, cream. And then of course a nice salsa.
So we used to start doing these kinds of dinner parties and so we'd have people over. And at that time my cooking timing was always off. So people would start coming over around six or seven and then dinner would probably start around 10. And so everyone was very hungry and by then slightly inebriated. So the food was always very well received, which only gives you confidence. It's kind of when I started to really appreciate and what Mexican food really is all about. Is kind of people coming together and the food was almost secondary to everything else that's going around in the dinner party.
Suzy Chase: Did that confidence prompt you to apply to the French Culinary Institute?
Danny Mena: At the time I was studying industrial engineering and so I decided to change career paths right then and there and go to hospitality tourism because that's the closest thing they had. And then at that point, my father passed away so then I had to deal with a lot of I stayed at home and everything. And so I kind of really didn't even think much about culinary school. I got a job in North Carolina working as an engineer and then after working there for like six, eight months, it was a short term contract. It's like where do I move to? And I had some friends in New York and I was like, I'm going to move to New York. And then I started doing dinner parties again in New York and that's when I read Kitchen Confidential, which is funny you brought up Anthony Bourdain. And really was kind the point of you know what, if I'm going to do this, I should do this now. I quit my job. I was working at a manufacturing company here in the city and I applied and went into the FCI.
Suzy Chase: So then you got an internship at Blue Hill. Did you realize how special that restaurant was at the time?
Danny Mena: No, unfortunately it was not the one in Stone Barns, it was the one here in the city. But even then, it's still like, I didn't realize, I mean it was an amazing experience to understand because when I was there, it was a chef Cuevas and he was the one day in and day out every in the morning, every night. He was the one who really was doing it, but what Dan Barbara does and understanding the role. Then he came only once.
And I remember when we were there, they got reviewed or re reviewed by the New York Times and they barely mentioned the chef de cuisine. And they really mentioned all about Dan Barber. And I was kind of disappointed, but really as I understand everything that Dan does and I've had now the pleasure of going up to Stone Barns and I mean just a true savant. I mean, and the ingredients they are doing and I mean, the best chicken in my life. And of course what they were doing in that little kitchen was such an amazing sort of education that really was kind of a wonderful way. And now in hindsight I appreciate it that much more.
Suzy Chase: Your first official culinary job was at the Modern, at the Museum of Modern Art. There is nothing I love more than eating at the Modern.
Danny Mena: It was amazing. I was looking at restaurants and someone just asked me, why would you go to a French restaurant if you're like, we were, I was looking for the best restaurants that I could in the city and where I thought I could learn the most. And so the Modern of course Danny Meyer just has a way of making great restaurants and hiring the right people. And I met the chef and he was great. And the sous chef was amazing and the guys and a couple of people in the kitchen seemed fun and I got the job offer and I was super excited. And a little by little I started off with the salad station. Then I kind of moved to the fry station that I moved to the grill. Ended up in sauté and just had a wonderful opportunity to learn entire line and the food that they're doing. It was so good. I mean learned to appreciate a really good pickle, which is a, it goes a long way.
Suzy Chase: Yeah. So this whole time in your career you were solely focused on American cuisine. Was there something in your head saying go back to Mexican cuisine, the food of your home?
Danny Mena: Yeah, I mean at the same time, as much as I learned about all of that and learning about all these kinds of cuisines that I knew kind of little about that. Of course the French Culinary Institutes, which is now the ACC, but very French focused on the dishes and the sauces and all that. And so it was a new world that was really exciting to me and I really loved it. But whenever I cooked at home, one of the things that I always kind of say like 99.9% of Mexicans will tell you the best food in the world is Mexican. And it just every cabinet, everybody, you go to any Mexicans house, you open a cabinet and there's going to be, there's some Valentina or Cholula or some sort of hot sauce. There's just certain addictive quality to Mexican food.
Then at the end of the day, that's what I started out with cooking more and more at home because I was doing less and less away from the away from home related to Mexican food. But the reason why we quit the Modern was to try to open a taco truck. So before taco trucks were were cool and were really nice, that was our idea. It was going to be called taco truck and we were going to get this really cool and get it super decked out and painted. I was going to get the spit and actually make tacos al pastor properly. And it was the first set of idea that kind of really spawned everything on trying to make the Mexican food that I know and love and the real deal. Something started calling me to kind of go home.
Suzy Chase: Born and raised in Mexico City. You wanted this cookbook to be a cookbook plus a travel guide. Talk a bit about that and the map in the back of the book.
Danny Mena: One of the things that I really wanted to talk about was kind of like the authenticity of our food at the restaurant and what we're doing at Hecho en Dumbo, what we were doing there, and what we're doing at La Loncheria. We wanted to kind of, to capture that to where sometimes I talked to a chef and I was like, you know what you never see on a Mexican menu in the United States? Is broccoli. But broccoli exists throughout the markets. People eat broccoli probably, maybe not as much, but somewhat close to it as much as the United States. It is an ingredient that exists. But because we don't find it to be Mexican, therefore we don't really see it, then people are kind of scared. So I was like, so what I wanted to do with this cookbook is also to show kind of what we rooted in authenticity and kind of in tradition with the recipes.
And so the best way to kind of go about it was to talk about how restaurants in Mexico that are all, of course, if you're in Mexico and you have a restaurant, it's automatically kind of Mexican. You don't have to prove it's, unless you're doing an Italian restaurant or anything. And even then they always put salsas on the table. So that's kind of what we wanted to do is there's so much great food coming out of Mexico. Every time we go down, we always go out to a new restaurant that's opening up.
And so I really kind of wanted to kind of showcase the quality and the vast array of food that exists in Mexico City. And some of the some of the recipes were, let's say like carnitas, which is a simple in general, a pretty simple recipe. We tried to stay true to that in the way that it gets cooked. And then certain things where like cochinita pibil or barbacoa that typically cooked in a pit underground. I don't have a pit here in New York and I can't do it at my restaurant. So of course we had to find a way to do it in an oven.
Suzy Chase: Mexican food is interesting because you can have most of the dishes for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I can't think of any other cuisine that's like that.
Danny Mena: Tacos for breakfast are very commonplace. I mean, you could have tacos three meals a day for three weeks and never, no one would think anything of it. That's just the normal way of going about. Tamales easy always. It's a big breakfast dish but also tamales are big for dinner. And really I think eggs is the only thing that is kind of only for breakfast. And then other than that you could have anything else you went to at any time.
Suzy Chase: On Saturday night I made your recipe for costras. How do you pronounce it?
Danny Mena: Costras, yeah.
Suzy Chase: With quick pickled onions on page 45. First off, why is this recipe called costras? Because it looks like a darn taco. And how did this dish come about?
Danny Mena: So this is a really fascinating one. So costra means a scab. And so what it is, you have your tortilla and then on top of that you have a piece of cheese. But what you do is you caramelize the cheese on one side. So if you look at the other side of it, it looks like a scab. There was this place in kind of a nicer neighborhood in the northern part of the city and it's called Bosques. These guys who had a little stand outside and they were the first people that they started making this type of taco and then probably it was an accident. I might go cook the cheese and realize how tasty it was. They were able to have enough money to move from this outside little stand inside this mall where really this kind of like high end nightclub was and people would come from all over to get the costras.
So people leaving the nightclub or people just coming to eat the costra would go down. And for like 10 years it was a huge phenomenon and it was really kind of them. And then the club closed down and then they had to actually move out of the mall and they're back on the street right now. But now you see costras in almost every taqueria in Mexico City. They really, I'm almost a hundred percent sure it spawned from this one place. So it's typically on a flour tortilla, it's a caramelized cheese and then you can put kind of any topic on it. So it is a taco, it's just a little different of a taco. So why it actually has a different namesake.
Suzy Chase: It's funny because while I was making it, I was thinking about how long those cheese disks take to make and I was thinking about them serving all these up to the massive crowd coming out of the nightclub, hungry and drunk. How did they make these quickly?
Danny Mena: Yeah, so they had shredded cheese that they would make it but it took some time. I mean they had like three guys in the back there, they were working hard, they were sweating. But one of the things about about these costras, they're also kind of big typically. So you only needed like one or two. A friend of mine I think once ate four, which was almost probably in the Ripley's believe it record book.
Suzy Chase: That's a bad decision.
Danny Mena: Yeah, it was like that. Of course they had a bunch to drink. But yeah, like what we say at our book to do grated because that's what you need actually. If you do fresh cheese and grate it yourself or anything like that, even even then it doesn't actually, it's not, it's too much liquid content. So it actually doesn't caramelize well. So if you have the grated then it will because it's kind of drier and it will caramelize and crisp up really nicely. So in the time that you're doing that, you can heat the tortilla and then you can add the, and then usually, if you do tacos al pastor, that's cooking kind of separately. So you basically have your tortilla, you caramelize the cheese on a hot griddle and then you add the meat on top and have yourself a quick costra.
Suzy Chase: Yeah, you can see mine on Instagram. It's beautiful.
Danny Mena: Nice. Beautiful. Nice, nice. I'm excited.
Suzy Chase: Now to my new segment this season called my favorite cookbook. Aside from this cookbook, what is your all time favorite cookbook and why?
Danny Mena: Eric Ripert. Return to Cooking it's called. So it's my favorite cookbook. Not only is the, just everything so beautiful, but it's all about seasons. And so he kind of goes around and he's in Puerto Rico and then he's in Napa and all these kind of different regions in different areas and what's kind of in season and the food is so, it's so much about that kind of, the area. I love a lot of Mexican foods and everything that we like about Mexico. But to have a cookbook where it kind of captures the essence of the place and then also a certain time. And I actually when I bought this cookbook, I didn't even know who Eric Ripert was. And now of course understanding him much better. It makes much more sense why everything is just so beautiful.
It was the first cookbook that I really bought those kind of high end that I was trying to kind of make some of these dishes. And so it was a lot of lot of fun. And so we had a shrimp here with black pepper and terragon and brandy. That was just amazing. It was the first time that I cooked something that was out of my realm of kind of knowledge of ingredients that was, it was something that I think is pretty special. So I don't know if to me it was this is the one that kind of really I guess captured my imagination of how beautiful food can look and taste.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web, social media and in New York City?
Danny Mena: So New York City. A lot of times I am at the restaurant that we have called La Loncheria. 41 Wilson Avenue, which is in Bushwick. On the web that you can find me on Instagram at @dennyhecho and also at La Loncheria B.K. restaurants. T
Suzy Chase: Thanks so much Danny for coming on Cookery by the Book podcast.
Danny Mena: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.
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