If you’re opening a Mexican restaurant in New York, do you set out to please the general Tex Mex diner who expects chips and salsa to land on the table at the beginning of every meal? Or do you go the authentic route and offer things like cactus and rajas?
Hecho en Dumbo, which just arrived on the Bowery in the old Marion’s space, toes the line between the two schools of Mexican food, offering amazingly good, deeply spicy, traditional Yucatan cuisine—but also a number of fun cocktails and some tortilla chips for the type of person who says “Let’s go out for margs!” When “authentic” can mean not just “truly Mexican” but true to anyplace that has adopted Mexican food (like those Mission-style burritos at Dos Toros), this approach seems like the best route to success for a new style of Mexican restaurant.
The space itself still feels very new. Gone is the homey campiness of Marion’s, exorcised in favor of a pared-down, urban industrial aesthetic. The lightbulbs are bare, the brick walls exposed, and—as a sign of Hecho en Dumbo’s culinary ambitions—the kitchen in back is open, with a sort of sushi-bar seating overlooking the chefs.
The hour-plus wait for a table for two on a Friday (Hecho en Dumbo doesn’t take reservations) was made much more enjoyable by the excellent cocktails at the bar. Chile powder on the rim of a tamarind margarita ($11) gave it an extra spicy kick you don’t usually find in a cocktail that’s easy to dumb down. Fresh fruit juice and quality Herradura tequilas took this and the regular margarita ($10) a notch above the standard. We were also thrilled to find a michelada Cubana ($7) here that’s a lot like the real item we had in Tulum last year: lime juice, Worcestershire and Maggi sauces, salt on the rim, and the rest of the beer (a Bohemia) served on the side.
Lime juice and intensely spicy peppers add real punch to Hecho en Dumbo’s innocent-looking guacamole. Served with lightly salted, puffy handmade tortilla chips, it’s quite addictive.
New Mexican restaurants veer too far off the beaten path when they do not offer standards like tacos. Though ruined by many bad Mexican restaurants, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the humble taco—especially if it’s Hecho en Dumbo’s shredded pork steeped in a heady mix of Yucatan spices and served in soft freshly made corn tortillas ($8). Whatever mix of flavors went into this revelation of a pork taco (the menu also mentions sour orange juice), it was a transporting experience just to bite into one.
Our cheesy, gooey queso fundito ($9) drew looks of envy from the next table—and though the kitchen could have pleased most Americans with just a plate of melted cheese, again they took things a step or two further, using traditional Oaxacan cheese and queso asadero, and, in our dish, huitlacoche mushroom and the hard-to-source herb epazote, very distinctive tastes that immediately take you back to Mexico. It’s also worth ordering a queso fundito for the three excellent salsas—chipotle, pico de galo, and a salsa verde—served alongside.
The chicken in a chili cream sauce on the sopes ($8) has a slow burn that catches up to you, tempered a little by the crema fresca. The puffy sopes themselves were light as air. Rajas tacos, made with roasted poblano pepper with cheese, are another very traditional taco that’s not easy to find (done right, at least). Hecho en Dumbo’s are on par with the very good ones at La Superior in Williamsburg.
Plates are small, but this is still an amazingly good deal for the excellent quality of the food: Four dishes and one order of guacamole were plenty for two people, and the grand tally including two drinks came to $62. We didn’t even get to delve into the Mexico-City cuisine section of the menu that includes house cured steak ($15) and lamb shank confit ($16).
In this neighborhood, just steps away from so many new bars, clubs and endlessly proliferating NYU buildings, Hecho en Dumbo didn’t need to be a good Mexican restaurant to succeed. They could have gotten away with bottomless margaritas and nachos. Kudos to them for the care and skilled technique that goes into their excellent Mexican food–it’s evident in every bite.
Hecho en Dumbo
354 Bowery between Great Jones and West 4th Street
New York, NY