photo credit: Teddy Woff
Seasons make people - especially New York people - very excited. That first day in September when it’s not 90 degrees and sweaty? People can’t get their scarves on fast enough. We’ve seen real adults huddled around the Muji notebooks and pencils section in September like they’re trying to will themselves back to Psych 101. And the fact that La Colombe, the coffee shop whose cups you used to rely on to make you seem cooler, now sells a pumpkin spice latte? We’ll leave it at that.
Sometimes it feels like we’re all just trying to make ourselves feel better about having seasons. If we get excited about scarves and pencils now, maybe when it’s 20 degrees and filthy-snowy in a few months, we’ll all be less miserable.
Go to Claro, and you won’t be able to lie to yourself anymore: New York City would be a much better place if it was always summer. This Mexican restaurant in Gowanus is great - but when you get to eat on their back patio, it’s outstanding.
Claro’s big backyard is full of trees, string lights, and most importantly, an open kitchen. The best seats in the restaurant are at the outdoor bar, where you can watch your tortillas being made over an open fire while drinking a frozen mezcal cocktail. It reminds us of Salazar - an entirely-outdoor Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles - and if you’re unfamiliar, all you really need to know is that a meal there could convince anyone to move to the West Coast.
But the reality is that we don’t have that kind of weather. For half the year, outdoor eating is like junior year of college - a distant happy memory you don’t want to think too hard about, for fear that it will make you sad.
Here’s some good news: Claro serves some of the best Mexican food we’ve had in NYC. Which means you should still come here even if it’s winter. The indoor space is basically just a room, but that doesn’t matter when the food is this good.
The menu is a take on Oaxacan food, and most dishes on it are both delicious and slightly different from other Mexican spots in the city. They make their tortillas in-house, and even when they come topped with spicy-smoky chile sauce, a pile of pork, and cheese, you can still taste how good the tortillas underneath all that are. That dish is the memela - other highlights here are the ceviches, tlayudas (basically Mexican pizzas), and their fantastic mole. The menu changes (yes, seasonally), and isn’t particularly long, but what they do, they do extremely well. And that includes the cocktails and desserts, which are worth ordering in multiples.
Claro might be in the middle of Brooklyn, but it serves the kind of food you expect only to find in places that don’t have snow. We haven’t yet tried it as an alternative to one of those seasonal affect disorder lamps, but we have a feeling it might just work.
Tuna Ceviche Tostada
Claro does a few raw fish dishes, and they’re excellent. This one involves guacamole and tuna and some grasshoppers for crunch. It should be on your table.
Then again, we might like the scallop version even more. It’s the same tortilla/guacamole base, but with raw scallop and apples. A bite with all four parts is magic.
Claro’s tortillas are the backbone of the menu, and any form you order them in is going to be great. In the memela, the tortilla is the base for stuff like chorizo and potatoes and cheese, or chile sauce and shredded pork. You won’t be disappointed no matter which you go with.
A tetela is basically a tortilla envelope stuffed with delicious things. Unlike your Coned bill, this is something you will be excited to open.
Skirt Steak Tlayuda
Tlayudas are essentially Oaxacan pizzas, but Claro’s come folded in half, more like a partially-open quesadilla on a crispy tortilla. This is stuffed with skirt steak, onions, chiles, and cream, and it’s every bit as good as that sounds.
This is outstanding, with one caveat: we wish there was more of it. We’ve seen it here with both turkey and duck, and would advise you get it on your table no matter what protein is available. Just don’t try to split it with a group.
Claro only does one or two desserts a night, but the ones we’ve tried have blown us away. We recently had a bowl of Mexican chocolate mousse covered with caramel and creams, and we would like to be inside that bowl at all times.