“I kind of always say, ‘My story is the opposite of a chef’s,'” Danny Mina of Mexico City says of his journey with cooking.
The former picky eater hadn’t tried eating mushrooms until he was 17, and growing up, he’d remove chunks of ancho ham from the pozole, leaving only hominy and broth.
“We weren’t a food-obsessed house, my dad never cooked, my mom cooked for necessity… I wasn’t hanging out in the back of the kitchen,” he adds.
But in the past 20 years, Mina has gone from making dessert—corn tortilla-like cakes with toppings—for friends in college to opening two successful dining ventures in New York City and writing a cookbook celebrating the flavors and restaurants in Mexico City. Now, after moving with his family to Richmond, Mina will work as partner and executive chef at Conejothe latest concept from Great hospitality for the kitchen.
The owners of BKH are husband-and-wife team John, Susan Davenport and Jeff Grant, who are responsible for the six Tazza Kitchen locations, including three in the Richmond area and three in the Carolinas.
The development of Westhampton Commons is set to begin next week at 5800 Patterson Ave. With a Mexico City-inspired menu and mezcal-heavy cocktail menu, the new restaurant will feature a sprawling patio and serve lunch and dinner right into the Monday hours.
Mina is an avid skater who happened to be pretty good at math, after high school he landed in America at Virginia Tech to study engineering.
“Going from Mexico City to Blacksburg was a pretty crazy contrast,” he says with a laugh. “It was intense, especially the first six months of a completely new culture and people.”
Thousands of miles from home, he began to communicate his legacy by hosting dinner parties. Moving to post-college in New York City, his fate will be determined after reading “Anthony Bourdain’s Secret Kitchen,” becoming close friends with a Brazilian chef and deciding to enroll in the French Culinary Institute.
“I started working in beautiful kitchens, and had the opportunity to open a small restaurant that started as a pop-up, and at the time the pop-up trend didn’t exist; we called it a “recurring culinary event,” he says with a laugh.
The event developed into nine consecutive years as Hecho en Dumbo in Manhattan, followed by La Luncheria in Brooklyn.
“When we first opened, people were saying, ‘We can tell people to cook this with a heart,'” Mina says, “and I’ve always taken this very seriously. And we love the food we serve.”
In 2019, coined “Made in Mexico: The Cookbook: Classic and Contemporary Recipes from Mexico CityA collection of dishes inspired by different restaurants in Mexico City. It caught the attention of Davenports, who were looking to introduce a new concept of their own.
“John loved his cookbook and saw [Mena] I went to Virginia Tech and reached out to him,” Susan says. “It was probably 18 months ago.”
This was followed by a series of Zoom meetings, phone calls, and eventually a trip together to Mexico City, Baja and Oaxaca, where the trio enjoyed aromas and flavors while preparing a menu for their upcoming Richmond restaurant.
“It was a very organic process,” Susan says of their collaboration with MENA. “He knows a lot about Mexican cuisine, in part from growing up in Mexico City and from researching and writing his cookbook.”
The soul of the menu at Conejo is fresh masa.
“In Mexican food, that’s basically, corn,” Mina says. “It’s important that the corn tortilla is our base and that we really showcase that.”
Sourcing from small family farms in Mexico, Conejo will grind heirloom corn daily to make fresh masa for tortillas, chips, tostadas and veggies using a three-step process called nixtamalization. Richmonds cast Rosa Bakery, member of Common Grain AllianceThe restaurant helps source Sonoran wheat from a farm in Pennsylvania, as well as mill the flour.
“The word conejo means rabbit in Spanish, but it also refers to a type of heirloom corn we’ll be using in our tortillas,” explains Susan. “There is also a Mexican folk tale, ‘400 Conejos,’ about divine rabbits who are deities of agave spirits.”
Speaking of spirits, the spirit of Conejo’s cocktail menu is mezcal.
“The majority of the cocktails will be tequila and mezcal,” says Mina, who also co-owns Peloton de la Muerte, a mezcal company in Mexico.
Deviating a bit from the traditional route, Cochinita pepil, from the Yucatan Peninsula traditionally made of marinated pork wrapped in banana leaves and slowly roasted underground, will have tuna, while Pepita mole is meant to add depth, and mint chimichurri for liveliness, vegan roasted broccoli taco in the restaurant.
Diners can also find campechano, tacos made with grilled steak, chorizo and chicharrones, which Mina describes as the salt bomb and the ultimate hangover cure. The chef considers short rib steak tacos, an ode to simplicity seasoned with salt and a dash of pepper, to be his signature menu.
“You don’t need much sometimes,” he says. “You don’t have to have what I call ‘vertical tacos’ meaning where you have to be a tower of one thing after another.”
Other menu items will include soft drinks, grilled meats, ceviche, salads, and a variety of classic Mexican antojitos. Describing the dishes as a slightly contemporary version of Mexican cuisine and Mexico City, Mina says, “It’s not modern or new, but it kind of happens. You see this a lot in Mexico, where you play with different dishes that kind of changes expectations. I told my wife that, I hope this is the best food I’ve ever made because [I’ve] also Making food, it keeps evolving and changing.”
Conejo It will be open Mondays and Tuesdays from 11:30 AM to 2:30 PM for lunch and 4:30 to 9 PM for dinner, Wednesday to Saturday from 11:30 AM to 2:30 PM for lunch and from 4:30 Until 10 pm for dinner.